The Yuletide edition of the BMJ carries a lovely article by Jeffrey Aronson, Patent medicines and secret remedies. (BMJ 2009;339:b5415).
I was delighted to be asked to write an editorial about it, In fact it proved quite hard work, because the BMJ thought it improper to be too rude about the royal family, or about the possibility of Knight Starvation among senior medics. The compromise version that appeared in the BMJ is on line (full text link).
The changes were sufficient that it seems worth posting the original version (with links embedded for convenience).
The cuts are a bit ironic, since the whole point of the article is to point out the stifling political correctness that has gripped the BMA, the royal colleges, and the Department of Health when it comes to dealing with evidence-free medicine. It has become commonplace for people to worry about the future of the print media, The fact of the matter is you can often find a quicker. smarter amd blunter response to the news on blogs than you can find in the dead tree media. I doubt that the BMJ is in any danger of course. It has a good reputation for its attitude to improper drug company influence (a perpetual problem for clinical journals) as well as for clinical and science articles. It’s great to see its editor, Fiona Godlee, supporting the national campaign for reform of the libel laws (please sign it yourself).
The fact remains that when it comes to the particular problem of magic medicine, the action has not come from the BMA, the royal colleges, and certainly not from the Department of Health, It has come from what Goldacre called the “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers”. They are the ones who’ve done the investigative journalism, sent complaints and called baloney wherever they saw it. This article was meant to celebrate their collective efforts and to celebrate the fact that those efforts are beginning to percolate upwards to influence the powers that be.
It seems invidious to pick on one example, but if you want an example of beautiful and trenchant writing on one of the topics dealt with here, you’d be better off reading Andrew Lewis’s piece "Meddling Princes, Medical Regulation and Licenses to Kill” than anything in a print journal.
I was a bit disappointed by removal of the comment about the Prince of Wales. In fact I’m not particularly republican compared with many of my friends. The royal family is clearly good for the tourist industry and that’s important. Since Mrs Thatcher (and her successors) destroyed large swathes of manufacturing and put trust in the vapourware produced by dishonest and/or incompetent bankers, it isn’t obvious how the UK can stay afloat. If tourists will pay to see people driving in golden coaches, that’s fine. We need the money. What is absolutely NOT acceptable is for royals to interfere in the democratic political process. That is what the Prince of Wales does incessantly. No doubt he is well-meaning, but that is not sufficient. If I wanted to know the winner of the 2.30 at Newmarket, it might make sense to ask a royal. In medicine it makes no sense at all. But the quality of the advice is irrelevant anyway. The royal web site itself says “As a constitutional monarch, the Sovereign must remain politically neutral.”. Why does she not apply that rule to her son? Time to put him over your knee Ma’am?
Two of the major bits that were cut out are shown in bold, The many other changes are small.
BMJ editorial December 2009
Secret remedies: 100 years on
Time to look again at the efficacy of remedies
Jeffrey Aronson in his article  gives a fascinating insight into how the BMA, BMJ and politicians tried, a century ago, to put an end to the marketing of secret remedies. They didn’t have much success.
The problems had not improved 40 years later when A.J. Clark published his book on patent medicines . It is astounding to see how little has changed since then. He wrote, for example, “On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”> Clark himself was sued for libel after he’d written in a pamphlet “ ‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”. Although he initially tried to fight the case, impending destitution eventually forced him to apologise . If that happened today, the accusation would have been repeated on hundreds of web sites round the world within 24 hours, and the quack would, with luck, lose .
As early as 1927, Clark had written “Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation” . That is even more true today. Homeopaths regularly talk utter nonsense about quantum theory  and ‘nutritional therapists’ claim to cure AIDS with vitamin pills or even with downloaded music files. Some of their writing is plain delusional, but much of it is a parody of scientific writing. The style, which Goldacre  calls ‘sciencey’, often looks quite plausible until you start to check the references.
A 100 years on from the BMA’s efforts, we need once again to look at the efficacy of remedies. Indeed the effort is already well under way, but this time it takes a rather different form. The initiative has come largely from an “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers” and some good journalists, helped by many scientific societies, but substantially hindered by the BMA, the Royal Colleges, the Department of Health and a few vice-chancellors. Even NICE and the MHRA have not helped much. The response of the royal colleges to the resurgence in magic medicine that started in the 1970s seems to have been a sort of embarrassment. They pushed the questions under the carpet by setting up committees (often populated with known sympathizers) so as to avoid having to say ‘baloney’. The Department of Health, equally embarrassed, tends to refer the questions to that well-known medical authority, the Prince of Wales (it is his Foundation for Integrated Health that was charged with drafting National Occupational Standards in make-believe subjects like naturopathy .
Two recent examples suffice to illustrate the problems.
The first example is the argument about the desirability of statutory regulation of acupuncture, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine (the Pittilo recommendations) .
Let’s start with a definition, taken from ‘A patients’ guide to magic medicine’ . “Herbal medicine: giving patients an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety”.
It seems to me to be self-evident that you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether what you are trying to regulate is nonsense, though this idea does not seem to have penetrated the thinking of the Department of Health or the authors of the Pittilo report. The consultation on statutory regulation has had many submissions  that point out the danger to patients of appearing to give official endorsement of treatments that don’t work. The good news is that there seems to have been a major change of heart at the Royal College of Physicians. Their submission points out with admirable clarity that the statutory regulation of things that don’t work is a danger to patients (though they still have a blank spot about the evidence for acupuncture, partly as a result of the recent uncharacteristically bad assessment of the evidence by NICE ). Things are looking up. Nevertheless, after the public consultation on the report ended on November 16th, the Prince of Wales abused his position to make a well-publicised intervention on behalf of herbalists . Sometimes I think his mother should give him a firm lesson in the meaning of the term ‘constitutional monarchy’, before he destroys it.
The other example concerns the recent ‘evidence check: homeopathy’ conducted by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (SCITECH). First the definition : “Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever”. When homeopathy was dreamt up, at the end of the 18th century, regular physicians were lethal blood-letters, and it’s quite likely that giving nothing saved people from them. By the mid-19th century, discoveries about the real causes of disease had started, but homeopaths remain to this day stuck in their 18th century time warp.
In 1842 Oliver Wendell Holmes said all that needed to be said about medicine-free medicine . It is nothing short of surreal that the UK parliament is still discussing it in 2009. Nevertheless it is worth watching the SCITECH proceedings . The first two sessions are fun, if only for the statement by the Professional Standards Director of Boots that they sell homeopathic pills while being quite aware that they don’t work. I thought that was rather admirable honesty. Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, went through his familiar cherry-picking of evidence, but at least repeated his condemnation of the sale of sugar pills for the prevention of malaria.
But for pure comedy gold, there is nothing to beat the final session. The health minister, Michael O’Brien, was eventually cajoled into admitting that there was no good evidence that homeopathy worked but defended the idea that the taxpayer should pay for it anyway. It was much harder to understand the position of the chief scientific advisor in the Department of Health, David Harper. He was evasive and ill-informed. Eventually the chairman, Phil Willis, said “No, that is not what I am asking you. You are the Department’s Chief Scientist. Can you give me one specific reference which supports the use of homeopathy in terms of Government policy on health?”. But answer came there none (well, there were words, but they made no sense).
Then at the end of the session Harper said “homeopathic practitioners would argue that the way randomised clinical trials are set up they do not lend themselves necessarily to the evaluation and demonstration of efficacy of homeopathic remedies, so to go down the track of having more randomised clinical trials, for the time being at least, does not seem to be a sensible way forward.” Earlier, Kent Woods (CEO of the MHRA) had said “the underlying theory does not really give rise to many testable hypotheses”. These two eminent people seemed to have been fooled by the limp excuses offered by homeopaths. The hypotheses are testable and homeopathy, because it involves pills, is particularly well suited to being tested by proper RCTs (they have been, and when done properly, they fail). If you want to know how to do it, all you have to do is read Goldacre in the Guardian .
It really isn’t vert complicated. “Imagine going to an NHS hospital for treatment and being sent away with nothing but a bottle of water and some vague promises.” “And no, it’s not a fruitcake fantasy. This is homeopathy and the NHS currently spends around £10million on it.”
That was written by health journalist Jane Symons, in The Sun . A Murdoch tabloid has produced a better account of homeopathy than anything that could be managed by the chief scientific advisor to the Department of Health. And it isn’t often that one can say that.
These examples serve to show that the medical establishment is slowly being dragged, from the bottom up, into realising that matters of truth and falsehood are more important than their knighthoods. It is all very heartening, both for medicine and for democracy itself.
Declaration of interests. I was A.J. Clark chair of pharmacology at UCL, 1985 – 2004.
1. Aronson, JK BMJ 2009;339:b5415
2. Clark, A,J, (1938) Patent Medicines FACT series 14, London. See also Patent medicines in 1938 and now http://www.dcscience.net/?p=257
3. David Clark “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)
4. Lewis, A. (2007) The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing
5. A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927
6. Chrastina, D (2007) Quantum theory isn’t that weak, (response to Lionel Milgrom).
7 Goldacre, B. (2008) Bad Science. HarperCollins
13. BBC news 1 December 2009 Prince Charles: ‘Herbal medicine must be regulated’.
14. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1842) Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions.
15. House of Commons Science and technology committee. Evidence check: homeopathy. Videos and transcripts available at http://www.viewista.com/s/fywlp2/ez/1
16. Goldacre, B. A Kind of Magic Guardian 16 November 2007.
17. Homeopathy is resources drain says
There is a good account of the third SCITECH session by clinical science consultant, Majikthyse, at The Three Amigos.
16 December 2009.. Recorded an interview for BBC Radio 5 Live. It was supposed to go out early on 17th.
17 December 2009. The editorial is mentioned in Editor’s Choice, by deputy editor Tony Delamothe. I love his way of putting the problem "too many at the top of British medicine seem frozen in the headlights of the complementary medicine bandwagon". He sounds remarkably kind given that I was awarded (by the editor, Fiona Godlee, no less) a sort of booby prize at the BMJ party for having generated a record number of emails during the editing of a single editorial (was it really 24?). Hey ho.
17 December 2009. Daily Telegraph reports on the editorial, under the heading “ ‘Nonsense’ alternative medicines should not be regulated“. Not a bad account for a non-health journalist.
17 December 2009. Good coverage in the excellent US blog, Neurologica, by the superb Steven Novella.’ “Intrepid, Ragged Band of Bloggers” take on CAM‘ provides a chance to compare and contrast the problems in the UK and the USA.’
18 December 2009. Article in The Times by former special advisor, Paul Richards. “The influence of Prince Charles the lobbyist is out of hand. Our deference stops us asking questions.”
“A good starting point might be publication of all correspondence over the past 30 years. Then we will know the extent, and influence, of Prince Charles the lobbyist.”
Comments in the BMJ Quite a lot of comments had appeared by January 8th, though sadly they were mostly from the usual suspects who appear every time one suggests evidence matters. A reply was called for, so I sent this (the version below has links).
After a long delay, this response eventually appeared in the BMJ on January 15 2010.
It’s good to see so many responses, though somewhat alarming to see that several of them seem to expect an editorial to provide a complete review of the literature. I ‘ll be happy to provide references for any assertion that I made.
I also find it a bit odd that some people think that an editorial is not the place to express an opinion robustly. That view seems to me to be a manifestation of the very sort of political correctness that I was deploring. It’s a bit like the case when the then health minister, Lord Hunt, referred to psychic surgery as a “profession” when he should have called it a fraudulent conjuring trick. Anything I write is very mild compared with what Thomas Wakley wrote in the Lancet, a journal which he founded around the time UCL came into existence. For example (I quote)
“[We deplore the] “state of society which allows various sets of mercenary, goose-brained monopolists and charlatans to usurp the highest privileges…. This is the canker-worm which eats into the heart of the medical body.” Wakley, T. The Lancet 1838-9, 1
I don’t think it is worth replying to people who cite Jacques Benveniste or Andrew Wakefield as authorities. Neither is it worth replying to people who raise the straw man argument about wicked pharmaceutical companies (about which I am on record as being as angry as anyone). But I would like to reply directly to some of the more coherent comments.
Sam Lewis and Robert Watson. [comment] Thank you for putting so succinctly what I was trying to say.
Peter Fisher [comment]. I have a lot of sympathy for Peter Fisher. He has attempted to do some good trials of homeopathy (they mostly had negative outcomes). He said he was "very angry" when the non-medical homeopaths were caught out recommending their sugar pills for malaria prevention (not that this as stopped such dangerous claims which are still commonplace). He agreed with me that there was not sufficient scientific basis for BSc degrees in homeopathy. I suppose that it isn’t really surprising that he continues to cherry pick the evidence. As clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic physician to the Queen, just imagine the cognitive dissonance that would result if he were to admit publicly that is all placebo after all. He has come close though. His (negative) trial for homeopathic treatment of rheumatoid arthritis included the words "It seems more important to define if homeopathists can genuinely control patients’ symptoms and less relevant to have concerns about whether this is due to a ‘genuine’ effect or to influencing the placebo response” . [download
the paper]. When it comes to malaria, it matters a lot.
Adrian White [comment] seems to be cross because I cited my own blog. I did that simply because if he follows the links there he will find the evidence. In the case of acupuncture it has been shown time after time that "real" acupuncture does not differ perceptibly from sham. That is true whether the sham consists of retractable needles or real needles in the "wrong" places. A non-blind comparison between acupuncture and no acupuncture usually shows some advantage for the former but it is, on average, too small to be of much clinical significance . I agree that there is no way to be sure that this advantage is purely placebo effect but since it is small and transient it really doesn’t matter much. Nobody has put it more clearly than Barker Bausell in his book, Snake Oil Science 
White also seems to have great faith in peer review. I agree that in real science it is probably the best system we have. But in alternative medicine journals the "peers" are usually other true believers in whatever hocus pocus is being promoted and peer reveiw breaks down altogether.
R. M. Pittilo [comment] I’m glad that Professor Pittilo has replied in person because I did single out his report for particular criticism. I agree that his report said that NHS funding should be available to CAM only where there is evidence of efficacy. That was not my criticism. My point was that in his report, the evidence for efficacy was assessed by representatives of Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (four from each). Every one of them would have been out of work if they had found their subjects were nonsense and that, no doubt, explains why the assessment was so bad. To be fair, they did admit that the evidence was not all that it might be and recommended (as always) more research I’d like to ask Professor Pittilo how much money should be spent on more research in the light of the fact that over a billion dollars has been spent in the USA on CAM research without producing a single useful treatment. Pittilo says "My own view is that both statutory regulation and the quest for evidence should proceed together" but he seems to neglect the possibility that the quest for evidence might fail. Experience in the USA suggests that is exactly what has, to a large extent, already happened.
I also find it quite absurd that the Pittilo report should recommend, despite a half-hearted admission that the evidence is poor, that entry to these subjects should be via BSc Honours degrees. In any case he is already thwarted in that ambition because universities are closing down degrees in these subjects having realised that the time to run a degree is after, not before, you have some evidence that the subject is not nonsense. I hope that in due course Professor Pittilo may take the same action about the courses in things like homeopathy that are run by the university of which he is vice-chancellor. That could only enhance the academic reputation of Robert Gordon’s University.
George Lewith [comment] You must be aware that the proposed regulatory body, the Health Professions Council, has already broken its own rules about "evidence-based practice" by agreeing to take on, if asked, practitioners of Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. They have (shamefully) excluded the idea that claims of efficacy would be regulated. In other word they propose to provide exactly the sort of pseudo-regulation which would endanger patients They are accustomed to the idea that regulation is to do only with censoring practitioners who are caught in bed with patients. However meritorious that may be, it is not the main problem with pseudo-medicine, an area in which they have no experience. I’m equally surprised that Lewith should recommend that Chinese evaluation of Traditional Chinese medicine should be included in meta-analyses, in view of the well-known fact that 99% of evaluations from China are positive: “No trial published in China or Russia/USSR found a test treatment to be ineffective” . He must surely realise that medicine in China is a branch of politics. In fact the whole resurgence in Chinese medicine and acupuncture in post-war times has less to do with ancient traditions than with Chinese nationalism, in particular the wish of Mao Tse-Tung to provide the appearance of health care for the masses (though it is reported that he himself preferred Western Medicine).
1. Lord Hunt thinks “psychic surgery” is a “profession”. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=258
2. Fisher, P. Scott, DL. 2001 Rheumatology 40, 1052 – 1055. [pdf file]
3. Madsen et al, BMJ 2009;338:a3115 [pdf file]
4. R, Barker Bausell, Snake Oil Science, Oxford University Press, 2007
5. Vickers, Niraj, Goyal, Harland and Rees (1998, Controlled Clinical Trials, 19, 159-166) “Do Certain Countries Produce Only Positive Results? A Systematic Review of Controlled Trials”. [pdf file]
15 January 2010. During the SciTech hearings, Kent Woods (CEO of the MHRA) made a very feeble attempt to defend the MHRA’s decision to allow misleading labelling of homeopathic products. Now they have published their justification for this claim. It is truly pathetic, as explained by Martin at LayScience: New Evidence Reveals the MHRA’s Farcical Approach to Homeopathy. This mis-labelling cause a great outcry in 2006, as documented in The MHRA breaks its founding principle: it is an intellectual disgrace, and Learned Societies speak out against CAM, and the MHRA.
22 January 2010 Very glad to see that the minister himself has chosen to respond in the BMJ to the editorial
Rt Hon. Mike O’Brien QC MP, Minister of State for Health Services
I am glad that David Colquhoun was entertained by my appearance before the Health Select Committee on Homeopathy. But he is mistaken when he says, “you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether or not the thing you are trying to regulate is nonsense.”
Regulation is about patient safety. Acupuncture, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine involve piercing the skin and/or the ingestion of potentially harmful substances and present a possible risk to patients.
The Pittilo Report recommends statutory regulation and we have recently held a public consultation on whether this is a sensible way forward.
Further research into the efficacy of therapies such as Homeopathy is unlikely to settle the debate, such is the controversy surrounding the subject. That is why the Department of Health’s policy towards complementary and alternative medicines is neutral.
Whether I personally think Homeopathy is nonsense or not is besides the point. As a Minister, I do not decide the correct treatment for patients. Doctors do that. I do not propose on this occasion to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.
Here is my response to the minister
I am very glad that the minister himself has replied. I think he is wrong in two ways, one relatively trivial but one very important.
First, he is wrong to refer to homeopathy as controversial. It is not. It is quite the daftest for the common forms of magic medicine and essentially no informed person believes a word of it. Of course, as minister, he is free to ignore scientific advice, just as the Home Secretary did recently. But he should admit that that is what he is doing, and not hide behind the (imagined) controversy.
Second, and far more importantly, he is wrong, dangerously wrong, to say it I was mistaken to claim that “you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether or not the thing you are trying to regulate is nonsense". According to that view it would make sense to grant statutory regulation to voodoo and astrology. The Pittilo proposals would involve giving honours degrees in nonsense if one took the minister’s view that it doesn’t matter whether the subjects are nonsense or not. Surely he isn’t advocating that?
The minister is also wrong to suppose that regulation, in the form proposed by Pittilo, would do anything to help patient safety. Indeed there is a good case to be made that it would endanger patients (not to mention endangering tigers and bears). The reason for that is that the main danger to patients arises from patients being given “remedies” that don’t work. The proposed regulatory body, the Health Professions Council, has already declared that it is not interested in whether the treatments work or not. That in itself endangers patients. In the case of Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is also a danger to patients from contaminated medicines. The HPC is not competent to deal with that either. It is the job of the MHRA and/or Trading Standards. There are much better methods of ensuring patient safety that those proposed by Pittilo.
In order to see the harm that can result from statutory regulation, it is necessary only to look at the General Chiropractic Council. Attention was focussed on chiropractic when the British Chiropractic Association decided, foolishly, to sue Simon Singh for defamation. That led to close inspection of the strength of the evidence for their claims to benefit conditions like infant colic and asthma. The evidence turned out to be pathetic, and the result was that something like 600 complaints were made to the GCC about the making of false health claims (including two against practices run by the chair of the GCC himself). The processing of these complaints is still in progress, but what is absolutely clear is that the statutory regulatory body, the GCC, had done nothing to discourage these false claims. On the contrary it had perpetrated them itself. No doubt the HPC would be similarly engulfed in complaints if the Pittilo proposals went ahead.
It is one thing to say that the government chooses to pay for things like homeopathy, despite it being known that they are only placebos, because some patients like them. It is quite another thing to endanger patient safety by advocating government endorsement in the form of statutory regulation, of treatments that don’t work.
I would be very happy to meet the minister to discuss the problems involved in ensuring patient safety. He has seen herbalists and other with vested interests. He has been lobbied by the Prince of Wales. Perhaps it is time he listened to the views of scientists too.
It seems very reasonable to suggest that taxpayers have an interest in knowing what is taught in universities. The recent Pittilo report suggested that degrees should be mandatory in Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. So it seems natural to ask to see what is actually taught in these degrees, so one can judge whether it protects the public or endangers them.
Since universities in the UK receive a great deal of public money, it’s easy. Just request the material under the Freedom of Information Act.
Well, uh, it isn’t as simple as that.
Every single application that I have made has been refused. After three years of trying, the Information Commissioner eventually supported my appeal to see teaching materials from the Homeopathy "BSc" at the University of Central Lancashire. He ruled that every single objection (apart from one trivial one) offered by the universities was invalid. In particular, it was ruled that univerities were not "commercial" organisations for the purposes of the Act.
So problem solved? Not a bit of it. I still haven’t seen any of the materials from the original request because the University of Central Lancashire appealed against the decision and the case of University of Central Lancashire v Information Commissioner is due to be heard on November 3rd, 4th and 5th in Manchester. I’m joined (as lawyers say) as a witness. Watch this space.
UCLan is not the exception. It is the rule. I have sought under the Freedom of Information Act, teaching materials from UClan (homeopathy), University of Salford (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of Westminster (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of West of England, University of Plymouth and University of East London, University of Wales (chiropractic and nutritional therapy), Robert Gordon University Aberdeen (homeopathy), Napier University Edinburgh (herbalism).
In every single case, the request for teaching materials has been refused. And that includes the last three, which were submitted after the decision of the Information Commissioner. They will send things like course validation documents, but these are utterly uninformative box-ticking documents. They say nothing whatsoever about what is actually taught.
The fact that I have been able to discover quite a lot about what’s being taught owes nothing whatsoever to the Freedom of Information Act. It is due entirely to the many honest individuals who have sent me teaching materials, often anonymously. We should be grateful to them. Their principles are rather more impressive than those of their principals.
Since this started about three years ago, two of the universities, UCLan and Salford, have shut down entry to all of their CAM courses. And Westminster has shut two of them, with more rumoured to be closing soon. They are to be congratulated for that, but is far from being the end of the matter. The Department of Health, and some of the Royal Colleges, have yet to catch up with the universities, The Pittolo report, which recommends making degrees compulsory, is being considered by the Department of Health. The consultation ends on November 2nd: if you haven’t yet responded, please do so now (see how here, and here).
A common excuse: the university does not possess teaching materials (yes, really)
Several of the universities claim that they cannot send teaching materials, because they have no access to them. This happens when the university has accredited a course that is run by another, privately run, institution. The place that does the actual teaching, being private, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
The ludicrous corollary of this excuse is that the university has accredited the course without checking on what is taught, and in some cases without even having seen a timetable.
The University of Wales
In fact the University of Wales doesn’t run courses at all. Like the (near moribund) University of London, it acts as a degree-awarding authority for a lot of Welsh Universities. It also validates a lot of courses in non-university institutions, 34 or so of them in the UK, and others scattered round the world.
Many of them are theological colleges. It does seem a bit odd that St Petersburg Christian University, Russia, and International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, should be accredited by the University of Wales.
They also validate the International Academy of Osteopathy, Ghent (Belgium), Osteopathie Schule Deutschland, the Istituto Superiore Di Osteopatia, Milan, the Instituto Superior De Medicinas Tradicionales, Barcelona, the Skandinaviska Osteopathögskolan (SKOS) Gothenburg, Sweden and the College D’Etudes Osteopathiques, Canada.
The case of the Nutritional Therapy course has been described already in Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy. It emerged that the course was run by a grade 1 new-age fantasist. It is worth recapitulating the follow up.
What does the University of Wales say? So far, nothing. Last week I sent brief and polite emails to Professor Palastanga and to
Professor Clement to try to discover whether it is true that the validation process had indeed missed the fact that the course organiser’s writings had been described as “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” in the Guardian.
So far I have had no reply from the vice-chancellor, but on 26 October I did get an answer from Prof Palastanga.
As regards the two people you asked questions about – J.Young – I personally am not familiar with her book and nobody on the validation panel raised any concerns about it. As for P.Holford similarly there were no concerns expressed about him or his work. In both cases we would have considered their CV’s as presented in the documentation as part of the teaching team. In my experience of conducting degree validations at over 16 UK Universities this is the normal practice of a validation panel.
I have to say this reply confirms my worst fears. Validation committees such as this one simply don’t do their duty. They don’t show the curiosity that is needed to discover the facts about the things that they are meant to be judging. How could they not have looked at the book by the very person that they are validating? After all that has been written about Patrick Holford, it is simply mind-boggling that the committee seems to have been quite unaware of any of it.
It is yet another example of the harm done to science by an unthinking, box-ticking approach.
The McTimoney College of Chiropractic was the subject of my next Freedom of Information request to the University of Wales. The reasons for that are, I guess, obvious. They sent me hundreds of pages of validation documents, Student Handbooks (approx 50 pages), BSc (Hons) Chiropractic Course Document. And so on. Reams of it. The documents mostly are in the range of 40 to 100 pages. Tons of paper, but none of it tells you anyhing whatsover of interest about what’s being taught. They are a testament to the ability of universities to produce endless vacuous prose with
very litlle content.
They did give me enough information to ask for a sample of the teaching materials on particular topics. But I gor blank refusal, on the grounds that they didn’t possess them. Only McTimoney had them. Their (unusually helpful) Freedom of Information officer replied thus.
“The University is entirely clear about the content of the course but the day to day timetabling of teaching sessions is a matter for the institution rather than the University and we do not require or possess timetable information. The Act does not oblige us to request the information but there is no reason you should not approach McTimoney directly on this.”
So the university doesn’t know the timetable. It doesn’t know what is taught in lectures, but it is " entirely clear about the content of the course".
This response can be described only as truly pathetic.
Either this is a laughably crude form of obstruction of my request, or perhaps, even more frighteningly, the university really believes that its endless box-ticking documents actually provide some useful control of quality. Perhaps the latter interpretation is more charitable. After all, the QAA, CHRE, UUK and every HR department share similar delusions about what constitutes quality.
Perhaps it is just yet another consequence of having science run largely by people who have never done it and don’t understand it.
Validation is a business. The University of Wales validates no fewer than 11,675 courses altogether. Many of these are perfectly ordinary courses in universities in Wales, but they validate 594 courses at non-Welsh accredited institutions, an activity that earned them £5,440,765 in the financial year 2007/8. There’s nothing wrong with that if they did the job properly. In the two cases I’ve looked at, they haven’t done the job properly. They have ticked boxes but they have not looked at what’s being taught or who is teaching it.
The University of Kingston
The University of Kingston offers a “BSc (Hons)” in acupuncture. In view of the fact that the Pittilo group has recommended degrees in acupuncture, there is enormous public interest in what is taught in such degrees, so I asked.
They sent the usual boring validation documents and a couple of sample exam papers . The questions were very clinical, and quite beyond the training of acupuncturists. The validation was done by a panel of three, Dr Larry Roberts (Chair, Director of Academic Development, Kingston University), Mr Roger Hill (Accreditation Officer, British Acupuncture Accreditation Board) and Ms Celia Tudor-Evans (Acupuncturist, College of Traditional Acupuncture, Leamington Spa). So nobody with any scientific expertise, and not a word of criticism.
Further to your recent request for information I am writing to advise that the University does not hold the following requested information:
(1) Lecture handouts/notes and powerpoint presentations for the following sessions, mentioned in Template 3rd year weekend and weekday course v26Aug2009_LRE1.pdf
(a) Skills 17: Representational systems + Colour & Sound ex. Tongue feedback 11
(b) Mental Disease + Epilepsy Pulse feedback 21
(c) 18 Auricular Acupuncture
(d) Intro. to Guasha + practice Cupping, moxa practice Tongue feedback 14
(2) I cannot see where the students are taught about research methods and statistics. I would like to see Lecture handouts/notes and PowerPoint presentations for teaching in this area, but the ‘timetables’ that you sent don’t make clear when or if it is taught.
The BSc Acupuncture is delivered by a partner college, the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (CICM), with Kingston University providing validation only. As such, the University does not hold copies of the teaching materials used on this course. In order to obtain copies of the teaching materials required you may wish to contact the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine directly.
This completes the University’s response to your information request.
So again we see that Kingston has validated the course but has not seen a timetable, far less what is taught. My reply was thus
Yes I am exceedingly unhappy about it. The university attaches its name to the course so it must obviously be able to get the material simply by asking for it (I’m surprised that the university should endorse a course without knowing what is taught on it, but that’s another matter).
I request formally that you obtain this material. If necessary please read this as a formal appeal.
I await with interest. In every single case so far, the internal review has merely confirmed the initial refusal. It means a bit of a delay before the case goes to the Information Commisssioner’s Office.
Napier University Edinburgh
Napier University runs a "BSc (Hons) Herbal medicine". (brochure here). Since herbal medicine is a subject of the Pittilo recommendations, there is enormous public interest in what they teach. So I asked, under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (2002). They sent quite quickly validation and accreditation documents, some examination papers, timetables and lecture lists.
The validation was the usual vacuous box-ticking stuff though it did reveal that the course “made extensive use of techniques such as tongue and pulse diagnosis”, which are well known phoney diagnosis methods, about as much use as a pendulum (as used at Westminster University).
As at Kingston University, the exam papers they chose to send were mostly "pretend doctor" stuff. One of them was
Discuss the herbal practitioner’s role in the management of IHD [ischaemic heart disease)
How one would like to see what the students said, and, even more one would like to see the model answer. Amateurs who try to treat potentially serious conditions are a danger to the public.
So then we got to the interesting bit, the request for actual teaching materials.
I have looked at the material that you sent and I’d now like to make the following supplementary request
(A) Lecture notes/handouts and powerpoint slides for the following small smaple of lectures
HRB09102 Materia Medica 4
Materia Medica 3 HRB08103
Clinical Medicine and Diagnosis 4 (HRB09104)
HRB09100 Materia Medica & Herbal Practice
BSc Herbal Medicine : Materia Medica HRB07102
Lastly, I can see nowhere in the timetable, lectures that deal with
Research methods, clinical trial design and statistics.
No prizes for guessing the result Total refusal to send any of them. To make matters worse, the main grounds for refusal were the very "commercial interests" which, after careful legal examination, the Information Commissioner (for England and Wales) had decided were invalid. They say too that "The public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in its release".. It is hard to see how the public interest is served by concealing from the people who pay for the degrees what is taught on degrees that Pittilo wants to make compulsory. [Download the whole response]
The matter is now under internal appeal (read the appeal) and eventually we shall find out whether the Scottish Information Commissioner backs the judgement.
Robert Gordon University Aberdeen
This case has particular interest because the Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University is Professor Michael Pittilo, chair of the highly contentious steering group that recommended degress in CAM. Robert Gordon University (RGU) does not teach herbal medicine or acupuncture. But they do run An Introduction to Homeopathy. All the degrees in homeopathy have closed. It is perhaps the daftest and most discredited of all the popular forms of Magic Medicine. But Professor Pittilo thinks it is an appropriate subject to teach in his university.
So again I asked for information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. They sent me quite quckly a list of the powerpoint presentations used on the courses [download it]. I asked for a small sample of the powerpoints. And again the university did not possess them!
I should like to see only the following three powerpoint presentations in the first instance, please.
Please can you let me know also who produced the powerpoints.
(1) Evidence for homeopathy
I note that you will have to request them but since they are being offered as part of a course offered by RGU, so RGU is responsible for their quality, I presume that this should cause no problem.
The request was refused on much the same grounds as used by Napier University. As usual, the internal review just confirmed the initial proposal (but dropped the obviously ludicrous public interest defence). The internal review said
“it is mainly the quality of our courses (including course material) and teaching which has given us the position of "the best modern university in Scotland"
I am bound to ask, if the university is so proud of its course material, why is it expending so much time and money to prevent anyone from seeing a small sample of it?
My appeal has been sent to the Scottish Information Commissioner [download the appeal].
What are vice-chancellors thinking about?
I find it very difficult to imagine what is going through the heads of vice-chancellors who run courses in mumbo-jumbo. Most of them don’t believe a word of it (though Michael Pittilo might be an exception) yet they foist it on their students. How do they sleep at night?
Recently the excellent Joe Collier wrote a nice BMJ blog which applauded the lack of respect for authority in today’s students, Joe Collier says good riddance to old-fashioned respect. I couldn’t resist leaving a comment.
I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing quite so unnerving as being addressed as “Sir”.
It is an advantage of age that you realise what second-rate people come to occupy very grand positions. Still odder since, if occasionally they are removed for incompetence, they usually move to an even grander position.
I guess that when I was an undergraduate, I found vice-chancellors somewhat imposing. That is, by and large, not a view that survives closer acquaintance.
Should teaching materials be open to the public?
There is only one university in the world that has, as a matter of policy, made all of its teaching material open to the public, that is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I can recommend strongly course 18.06, a wonderful set of lectures on Linear Algebra by Gilbert Strang. (It is also a wonderful demonstration of why blackboards may be better than Powerpoint for subjects like this). Now they are on YouTube too.
A lot of other places have made small moves in the same direction, as discussed recently in Times Higher Education, Get it Out in the Open.
Now the OU is working with other British universities to help them develop and share open course materials. In June, at the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the OU, Gordon Brown announced funding to establish the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education at the OU, as part of a £7.8 million grant designed to enhance the university’s national role.
The funding follows a separate grant of £5.7 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for universities across the sector to make thousands of hours of free learning materials available.
Much material is available on the web, when individual teachers choose to place it there, but at the same time there is a move in the other direction. In particular, the widespread adoption of Moodle has resulted in a big decrease in openness. Usually you have to be registered on a course to see the material. Even other people in the university can’t see it. I think that is a deplorable development (so, presumably, does HEFCE).
I was told by the Univerity of Kingston that
“The course is one which the University has validated and continues to be subject to the University’s quality assurance procedures, such as internal subject reviews, annual monitoring and external examining”
The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that “quality arrurance procedures” work about as well in universities as they did in the case of baby Peter. No doubt they were introduced with worthy aims. But in practice they occupy vast amounts of time for armies of bureaucrats, and because the brain does not need to be engaged they end up endorsing utter nonsenes. The system is broken.
Resistance is futile. You can see a lot of the stuff here
It is hard to keep secrets in the internet age. Thanks to many wonderful people who have sent me material. you can see plenty of what is taught, despite the desperate attempts of vice-chancellors to conceal it. Try these links.
What is actually taught
Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed
Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help top stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself
Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients
More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time its Naturopathy
The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.
The opposite of science
Bad medicine. Barts sinks further into the endarkenment.
A letter to the Times, and progress at Westminster
Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University
Westminster University BSc: amethysts emit high yin energy
References for Pittilo report consultation
A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor
The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title)
Some follow up on the Times piece
The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense
One month to stop the Department of Health endorsing quackery. The Pittilo questionnaire,
An excellent submission to the consultation on statutory regulation of alternative medicine (Pittilo report)
I’ve had permission to post a submission that has been sent to the Pittilo consultation. The whole document can be downloaded here. I have removed the name of the author. It is written by the person who has made some excellent contributions to this blog under the pseudonym "Allo V Psycho".
The document is a model of clarity, and it ends with constructive suggestions for forms of regulation that will, unlike the Pittilo proposals, really protect patients
Here is the summary. The full document explains each point in detail.
Instead, safe regulation of alternative practitioners should be through:
The first two recommendations for effective regulation are much the same as mine, but the the third one is interesting. The problem with the Cancer Act (1939), and with the Unfair Trading regulations, is that they are applied very erratically. They are the responsibility of local Trading Standards offices, who have, as a rule, neither the expertise nor the time to enforce them effectively. A Health Advertising Standards Authority could perhaps take over the role of enforcing existing laws. But it should be an authority with teeth. It should have the ability to prosecute. The existing Advertising Standards Authority produces, on the whole, excellent judgements but it is quite ineffective because it can do very little.
A letter from an acupuncturist
I had a remarkable letter recently from someone who actually practises acupuncture. Here are some extracts.
“I very much enjoy reading your Improbable Science blog. It’s great to see good old-fashioned logic being applied incisively to the murk and spin that passes for government “thinking” these days.”
“It’s interesting that the British Acupuncture Council are in favour of statutory regulation. The reason is, as you have pointed out, that this will confer a respectability on them, and will be used as a lever to try to get NHS funding for acupuncture. Indeed, the BAcC’s mission statement includes a line “To contribute to the development of healthcare policy both now and in the future”, which is a huge joke when they clearly haven’t got the remotest idea about the issues involved.”
“Before anything is decided on statutory regulation, the British Acupuncture Council is trying to get a Royal Charter. If this is achieved, it will be seen as a significant boost to their respectability and, by implication, the validity of state-funded acupuncture. The argument will be that if Physios and O.T.s are Chartered and safe to work in the NHS, then why should Chartered Acupuncturists be treated differently? A postal vote of 2,700 BAcC members is under-way now and they are being urged to vote “yes”. The fact that the Privy Council are even considering it, is surprising when the BAcC does not even meet the requirement that the institution should have a minimum of 5000 members (http://www.privy-council.org.uk/output/Page45.asp). Chartered status is seen as a significant stepping-stone in strengthening their negotiating hand in the run-up to statutory regulation.”
“Whatever the efficacy of acupuncture, I would hate to see scarce NHS resources spent on well-meaning, but frequently gormless acupuncturists when there’s no money for the increasing costs of medical technology or proven life-saving pharmaceuticals.”
“The fact that universities are handing out a science degree in acupuncture is a testament to how devalued tertiary education has become since my day. An acupuncture degree cannot be called “scientific” in any normal sense of the term. The truth is that most acupuncturists have a poor understanding of the form of TCM taught in P.R.China, and hang on to a confused grasp of oriental concepts mixed in with a bit of New Age philosophy and trendy nutritional/life-coach advice that you see trotted out by journalists in the women’s weeklies. This casual eclectic approach is accompanied by a complete lack of intellectual rigour.
My view is that acupuncturists might help people who have not been helped by NHS interventions, but, in my experience, it has very little to do with the application of a proven set of clinical principles (alternative or otherwise). Some patients experience remission of symptoms and I’m sure that is, in part, bound up with the psychosomatic effects of good listening, and non-judgemental kindness. In that respect, the woolly-minded thinking of most traditional acupuncturists doesn’t really matter, they’re relatively harmless and well-meaning, a bit like hair-dressers. But just because you trust your hairdresser, it doesn’t mean hairdressers deserve the Privy Council’s Royal Charter or that they need to be regulated by the government because their clients are somehow supposedly “vulnerable”.”
Earlier postings on the Pittilo recommendations
A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor http://www.dcscience.net/?p=235
Article in The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title)
Some follow up on The Times piece
The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense
Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed
Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help top stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2007
Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043
One month to stop the Department of Health endorsing quackery. The Pittilo questionnaire, http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2310
More boring politics, but it matters. The two main recommendations of this Pittilo report are that
- Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine should be subject to statutory regulation by the Health Professions Council
- Entry to the register should normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours
A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor
The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense
Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself
The Department of Health consultation shuts on November 2nd. If you haven’t responded yet, please do. It would be an enormous setback for reason and common sense if the government were to give a stamp of official approval to people who are often no more than snake-oil salesman.
Today I emailed my submission to the Pittilo consultation to the Department of Health, at HRDListening@dh.gsi.gov.uk
I sent the following documents, updated versions of those already posted earlier.
- Submission to the Department of Health, for the consultation on the Pittilo report [download pdf].
- What is taught in degrees in herbal and traditional Chinese medicine? [download pdf]
- $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures [download pdf]
- An example of dangerous (and probably illegal) claims that are routinely made by TCM practitioners [download pdf]f
I also completed their questionnaire, despite its deficiencies. In case it is any help to anyone, this is what I said:
Q1: What evidence is there of harm to the public currently as a result of the activities of acupuncturists, herbalists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners? What is its likelihood and severity?
The major source of harm is the cruel deception involved in making false claims of benefit to desperate patients. This applies to all three.
In the case of herbal and TCM there is danger from toxicity because herbal preparations are unstandardised so those that do contain an active ingredient are given in an unknown dose. This is irresponsible and dangerous (but would not be changed by the proposals for regulation).
In addition TCM suffers from recurrent problems of contamination with heavy metals, prescription drugs and so on. Again this would not be the business of the proposed form of regulation.
Q2: Would this harm be lessened by statutory regulation? If so, how?
The proposed form of regulation would be no help at all. The HPC has already said that it is not concerned with whether or not the drug works, and, by implication, does not see itself as preventing false health claims (just as the GCC doesn’t do this). False claims are the responsibility of Trading Standards who are meant to enforce the Consumer Protection Unfair Trading Regulations (May 2008), though they do not at present enforce them very effectively. Also Advertisng Standards. The proposed regulation would not help, and could easily hinder public safety as shown by the fact that the GCC has itself been referred to the Advertisng Standards Authority.
The questions of toxicity and contamination are already the responsibility of Trading Standards and the MHRA. Regulation by the HPC would not help at all. The HPC is not competent to deal with such questions.
Q3: What do you envisage would be the benefit to the public, to practitioners and to businesses, associated with introducing statutory regulation?
This question is badly formulated because the answer is different according to whether you are referring to the public, to practitioners or to businesses.
The public would be endangered by the form of regulation that is proposed, as is shown very clearly by the documents that I have submitted separately.
In the case of practitioners and businesses, there might be a small benefit, if the statutory regulation gave the impression that HM and TCM had government endorsement and must therefore be safe and effective.
There is also one way that the regulation could harm practitioners and businesses. If the HPC received a very large number of complaints about false health claims, just as the GCC has done recently, not only would it cost a large amount of money to process the claims, but the attendant bad publicity could harm practitioners. It is quite likely that this would occur since false claims to benefit sick people are rife in the areas of acupuncture, HM and TCM.
Q4: What do you envisage would be the regulatory burden and financial costs to the public, to practitioners, and to businesses, associated with introducing statutory regulation? Are these costs justified by the benefits and are they proportionate to the risks? If so, in what way?
Certainly not justified. Given that I believe that the proposed form of regulation would endanger patients, no cost at all would be justified. But even if there were a marginal benefit, the cost would be quite unjustified. The number of practitioners involved is very large. It would involve a huge expansion of an existing quango, at a time when the government is trying to reduce the number of quangos. Furthermore, if the HPC were flooded with complaints about false health claims, as the GCC has been, the costs in legal fees could be enormous.
Q5: If herbal and TCM practitioners are subject to statutory regulation, should the right to prepare and commission unlicensed herbal medicines be restricted to statutorily regulated practitioners?
I don’t think it would make much difference. The same (often false) ideas are shared by all HM people and that would continue to be the same with or without SR.
Q6: If herbal and TCM practitioners are not statutorily regulated, how (if at all) should unlicensed herbal medicines prepared or commissioned by these practitioners be regulated?
They could carry on as now, but the money that would have been spent on SR should instead be used to give the Office of Trading Standards and the MHRA the ability to exert closer scrutiny and to enforce more effectively laws that already exist. Present laws, if enforced, are quite enough to protect the public.
Q7: What would be the effect on public, practitioners and businesses if, in order to comply with the requirements of European medicines legislation, practitioners were unable to supply manufactured unlicensed herbal medicines commissioned from a third party?
European laws,especialliy in food area, are getting quite strict about the matters of efficacy. The proposed regulation, which ignores efficacy, could well be incompatible with European law, if not now, then soon. This would do no harm to legitimate business though it might affect adversely businesses which make false claims (and there are rather a lot of the latter).
Q8: How might the risk of harm to the public be reduced other than by orthodox statutory regulation? For example by voluntary self-regulation underpinned by consumer protection legislation and by greater public awareness, by accreditation of voluntary registration bodies, or by a statutory or voluntary licensing regime?
Accreditation of voluntary bodies
Statutory or voluntary licensing
I disagree with the premise, for reasons given in detail in separate documents. I believe that ‘orthodox statutory regulation’, if that means the Pittilo proposals, would increase, not decrease, the risk to the public. Strengthening the powers of Trading Standards, the MHRA and such consumer protection legislation would be far more effective in reducing risk to the public than the HPC could ever be. Greater public awareness of the weakness of the evidence for the efficacy of these treatments would obviously help too, but can’t do the job on its own.
Q10: What would you envisage would be the benefits to the public, to practitioners, and to businesses, for the alternatives to statutory regulation outlined at Question 8?
It depends on which alternative you are referring to. The major benefit of enforcement of existing laws by Trading Standards and/or the MHRA would be (a) to protect the public from risk, (b) to protect the public from health fraud and (c) almost certainly lower cost to the tax payer.
Q11: If you feel that not all three practitioner groups justify statutory regulation, which group(s) does/do not and please give your reasons why/why not?
None of them. The differences are marginal. In the case of acupuncture there has been far more good research than for HM or TCM. But the result of that research is to show that in most cases the effects are likely to be no more than those expected of a rather theatrical placebo. Furthermore the extent to which acupuncture has a bigger effect than no-acupuncture in a NON-BLIND comparison, is usually too small and transient to offer any clinical advantage (so it doesn’t really matter whether the effect is placebo or not, it is too small to be useful).
In the case of HM, and even more of TCM, there is simply not enough research to give much idea of their usefulness, with a small handful of exceptions.
This leads to a conclusion that DH seems to have ignored in the past. It makes absolutely no sense to talk about “properly trained practitioners” without first deciding whether the treatments work or not. There can be no such thing as “proper training” in a discipline that offers no benefit over placebo. It is a major fault of the Pittilo recommendations that they (a) ignore this basic principle and (b) are very over-optimistic about the state of the evidence.
Q12: Would it be helpful to the public for these practitioners to be regulated in a way which differentiates them from the regulatory regime for mainstream professions publicly perceived as having an evidence base of clinical effectiveness? If so, why? If not, why not?
It might indeed be useful if regulation pointed out the very thin evidence base for HM and TCM but it would look rather silly. The public would say how can it be that the DH is granting statutory regulation to things that don’t work?
Q13: Given the Government’s commitment to reducing the overall burden of unnecessary statutory regulation, can you suggest which areas of healthcare practice present sufficiently low risk so that they could be regulated in a different, less burdensome way or de-regulated, if a decision is made to statutorily regulate acupuncturists, herbalists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners?
As stated above, the.only form of regulation that is needed, and the only form that would protect the public, is through consumer protection regulations, most of which already exist (though they are enforced in a very inconsistent way). Most statutory regulation is objectionable, not on libertarian grounds, but because it doesn’t achieve the desired ends (and is expensive). In this case of folk medicine, like HM and TCM, the effect would be exactly the opposite of that desired as shown in separate documents that I have submitted to the consultation.
Q14: If there were to be statutory regulation, should the Health Professions Council (HPC) regulate all three professions? If not, which one(s) should the HPC not regulate?
The HPC should regulate none of them. It has never before regulated any form of alternative medicine and it is ill-equipped to do so. Its statement that it doesn’t matter that there is very little evidence that the treatments work poses a danger to patients (as well as being contrary to its own rules).
Q15: If there were to be statutory regulation, should the Health Professions Council or the General Pharmaceutical Council/Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland regulate herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners?
Neither. The GPC is unlikely to care about whether the treatments work any more than the RPSGB did, or the GCC does now. The problems would be exactly the same whichever body did it.
Q16: If neither, who should and why?
As I have said repeatedly, it should be left to Trading Standards, the MHRA and other consumer protection regulation.
a) Should acupuncture be subject to a different form of regulation from that for herbalism and traditional Chinese medicine? If so, what?
b) Can acupuncture be adequately regulated through local means, for example through Health and Safety legislation, Trading Standards legislation and Local Authority licensing?
(a) No -all should be treated the same. Acupuncture is part of TCM
a) Should the titles acupuncturist, herbalist and [traditional] Chinese medicine practitioner be protected?
b) If your answer is no which ones do you consider should not be legally protected?
No. It makes no sense to protect titles until such time as it has been shown that the practitioners can make a useful contribution to medicine (above placebo effect). That does not deny that placebos may be useful at times. but if that is all they are doing, the title should be ‘placebo practitioners’.
Q19: Should a new model of regulation be tested where it is the functions of acupuncture, herbal medicine and TCM that are protected, rather than the titles of acupuncturist, herbalist or Chinese medicine practitioner?
No. This makes absolutely no sense when there is so little knowledge about what is meant by the ” functions of acupuncture, herbal medicine and TCM”.Insofar as they don’t work (better than placebo), there IS no function. Any attempt to define function when there is so little solid evidence (at least for HM and TCM) is doomed to failure.
Q20: If statutory professional self-regulation is progressed, with a model of protection of title, do you agree with the proposals for “grandparenting” set out in the Pittilo report?
No. I believe the Pittilo report should be ignored entirely. The whole process needs to be thought out again in a more rational way.
Q22: Could practitioners demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements and communicate effectively with regulators, the public and other healthcare professionals if they do not achieve the standard of English language competence normally required for UK registration? What additional costs would occur for both practitioners and regulatory authorities in this case?
No. It is a serious problem, in TCM especially, that many High Street practitioners speak hardly any English at all. That adds severely to the already considerable risks. There would be no reliable way to convey what was expected of them. it would be absurd for the taxpayer to pay for them to learn English for the purposes of practising TCM (of course there might be the same case as for any other immigrant for teaching English on social grounds).
Q23: What would the impact be on the public, practitioners and businesses (financial and regulatory burden) if practitioners unable to achieve an English language IELTS score of 6.5 or above are unable to register in the UK?
The question is not relevant. The aim of regulation is to protect the public from risk (and it should be, but isn’t, an aim to protect them from health fraud). It is not the job of regulation to promote businesses
Q24: Are there any other matters you wish to draw to our attention?
I have submitted three documents via HRDListening@dh.gsi.gov.uk. The first of these puts the case against the form of regulation proposed by Pittilo, far more fluently than is possible in a questionnaire.
Another shows examples of what is actually taught in degrees in acupuncture, HM and TCM. They show very graphically the extent to which the Pittilo proposals would endanger the public, if they were to be implemented..
This post has been translated into Belorussian..
In my view traditional Chinese medicine endangers people. The proposed ‘regulation’ would do nothing to protect the public. Quite on the contrary, it would add to the dangers, by giving an official stamp of approval while doing nothing for safety.
The government’s idea of improving safety is to make sure that practitioners are ‘properly trained’. But it is the qualifications that cause the danger in the first place. The courses teach ideas that are plain wrong and often really dangerous.
Why have government (and some universities) not noticed this? That’s easy to see. Governments, quangos and university validation committees simply don’t look. They tick boxes but never ask what actually goes on. Here’s some examples of what goes on for them to think about. They show clearly the sort of dangerous rubbish that is taught on some of these ‘degrees’.
These particular slides are from the University of Westminster, but similar courses exist in only too many other places. Watch this space for more details on courses at Edinburgh Napier University, Middlesex University and the University of East London
Just a lot of old myths. Sheer gobbledygook,
SO much for a couple of centuries of physiology,
It gets worse.
Curious indeed. The fantasy gobbledygook gets worse.
Now it is getting utterly silly. Teaching students that the brain is made of marrow is not just absurd, but desperately dangerous for anyone unlucky (or stupid) enough to go to such a person when they are ill.
Here’s another herbal lecture., and this time the topic is serious. Cancer.
Herbal approaches for patients with cancer.
I’ve removed the name of the teacher to spare her the acute embarrassment of having these dangerous fantasies revealed. The fact that she probably believes them is not a sufficient excuse for endangering the public. There is certainly no excuse for the university allowing this stuff to be taught as part of a BSc (Hons).
First get them scared with some bad statistics.
No fuss there about distinguishing incidence, age-standardisation and death rates. And no reference. Perhaps a reference to the simple explanation of statistics at Cancer Research UK might help? Perhaps this slide would have been better (from CDC). Seems there is some mistake in slide 2.
Straight on to a truly disgraceful statement in slide 3
The is outrageous and very possibly illegal under the Cancer Act (1939). It certainly poses a huge danger to patients. It is a direct incentive to make illegal, and untrue claims by using weasel words in an attempt to stay just on the right side of the law. But that, of course, is standard practice in alternative medicine,
Slide 11 is mostly meaningless. “Strengthen vitality” sounds good but means nothing. And “enhancing the immune system” is what alternative medicine folks always say when they can think of nothing else. Its meaning is ill-defined and there is no reason to think that any herbs do it.
The idea of a ‘tonic’ was actually quite common in real medicine in the 1950s. The term slowly vanished as it was realised that it was a figment of the imagination. In the fantasy world of alternative medicine, it lives on.
Detoxification, a marketing term not a medical one, has been extensively debunked quite recently. The use of the word by The Prince of Wales’ company, Duchy Originals recently fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority, and his herbal ‘remedies’ were zapped by the MHRA (Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority).
And of course the antioxidant myth is a long-disproved hypothesis that has become a mere marketing term.
“Inhibits the recurrence of cancer”! That sounds terrific. But if it is so good why is it not even mentioned in the two main resources for information about herbs?
In the UK we have the National Library for Health Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library (NeLCAM), now a part of NHS Evidence. It was launched in 2006. The clinical lead was none other than Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, and the Queen’s homeopathic physician. The library was developed with the School of Integrated Health at the University of Westminster (where this particular slide was shown to undergraduates). Nobody could accuse these people of being hostile to magic medicine,
It seems odd, then, that NeLCAM does not seem to thnk to think that Centella asiatica, is even worth mentioning.
In the USA we have the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), an organisation that is so friendly to alternative medicine that it has spent a billion dollars on research in the area, though it has produced not a single good treatment for that vast expenditure. But NCCAM too does not even mention Centella asiatica in its herb list. It does get a mention in Cochrane reviews but only as a cosmetic cream and as an unproven treatment for poor venous circulation in the legs.
What on earth is a “lymph remedy”. Just another marketing term?
“especially valuable in the treatment of breast, throat and uterus cancer.“
That is a very dramatic claim. It as as though the hapless students were being tutored in doublespeak. What is meant by “especially valuable in the treatment of”? Clearly a desperate patient would interpret those words as meaning that there was at least a chance of a cure. That would be a wicked deception because there isn’t the slightest reason to think it works. Once again there this wondrous cure is not even mentioned in either NELCAM or NCCAM. Phytolacca is mentioned, as Pokeweed, in Wikipedia but no claims are mentioned even there. And it isn’t mentioned in Cochrane reviews either. The dramatic claims are utterly unfounded.
Ah the mistletoe story, again.
NHS Evidence (NeLCAM) lists three completed assessments. One concludes that more research is needed. Another concludes that “Rigorous trials of mistletoe extracts fail to demonstrate efficacy of this therapy”, and the third says “The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak”.
NCCAM says of mistletoe
- More than 30 human studies using mistletoe to treat cancer have been done since the early 1960s, but major weaknesses in many of these have raised doubts about their findings (see Question 6).
- Very few bad side effects have been reported from the use of mistletoe extract, though mistletoe plants and berries are poisonous to humans (see Question 7).
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition (see Question 8).
- The FDA does not allow injectable mistletoe to be imported, sold, or used except for clinical research (see Question 8).
Cochrane reviews lists several reviews of mistletoe with similar conclusions. For example “The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak”.
Anthroposophy is one of the highest grades of fantasy you can find. A post on that topic is in the works.
“Indicated for cancers . . . colon/rectal, uterine, breast, lung“. A cure for lung cancer? That, of course, depends on how you interpret the weasel words “indicated for”. Even Wikipedia makes no mention of any claims that Thuja benefits cancer. NHS Evidence (NeLCAM) doesn’t mention Thuja for any indication. Neither does NCCAM. Nor Cochrane reviews. That is not the impression the hapless students of this BSc lecture were given. In my view suggestions that you can cure lung cancer with this tree are just plain wicked.
Pure snake oil, and not even spelled correctly, Harry Hoxsey’s treatment centres in the USA were closed by court order in the 1950s.
At least this time it is stated that there is no hard evidence to support this brand of snake oil.
More unfounded claims when it says “treated successfully many cancer patients”. No references and no data to support the claim. It is utterly unfounded and claims to the contrary endanger the public.
Gerson therapy is one of the most notorious and unpleasant of the quack cancer treatments. The Gerson Institute is on San Diego, but their clinics are in Mexico and Hungary. It is illegal in the USA. According to the American Cancer Society you get “a strict low-salt, low-fat, vegetarian diet and drinking juice from about twenty pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. One glass of juice is consumed each hour, thirteen times a day. In addition, patients are given several coffee enemas each day. Various supplements, such as potassium, vitamin B12, pancreatic enzymes, thyroid hormone, and liver extracts, are used to stimulate organ function, particularly of the liver and thyroid.”. At one time you also got several glasses of raw calf liver every day but after infections killed several people] carrot juice was given instead.
Cancer Research UK says “there is no evidence to show that Gerson therapy works as a cure for cancer”, and “The Gerson diet can cause some very serious side effects.” Nobody (except perhaps the Price of Wales) has any belief in this unpleasant, toxic and expensive folk-lore.
Again patients are endangered by teaching this sort of stuff.
And finally, the usual swipe at vaccines. It’s nothing to do with herbalism. but just about every alternative medicine advocate seems to subscribe to the anti-vaccination lobby.. It is almost as though they have an active preference for things that are known to be wrong. They seem to believe that medicine and science are part of an enormous conspiracy to kill everyone.
Perhaps this dangerous propaganda might have been ameliorated if the students had been shown this slide (from a talk by Melinda Wharton).
Left to people like this, we would still have smallpox, diphtheria. tetanus and rabies, Take a look at Vaccine-preventable diseases.
This is the sort of ‘education’ which the Pittilo report wants to make compulsory.
Smallpox in Baltimore, USA, 1939. This man was not vaccinated.
This selection of slides shows that much of the stuff taught in degrees in herbal medicine poses a real danger to public safety and to public health.
Pittilo’s idea that imposing this sort of miseducation will help safety is obviously and dangerously wrong. The Department of Health must reject the Pittilo recommendations on those grounds.
The much-delayed public consultation on the Pittilo report has just opened.
It is very important that as many people as possible respond to it. It’s easy to say that the consultation is sham. It will be if it is left only to acupuncturists and Chinese medicine people to respond to it. Please write to them before the closing date, November 2nd 2009. The way to send your evidence is here.
There is a questionnaire that you can complete, with the usual leading questions. Best do it anyway, but I’d suggest also sending written evidence as attachment too. I just got from DoH the email address where you can send it. They said
|if you have material you wish to send which you can’t easily “shoehorn” into the questionnaire, please send it to the following mailbox:
Here are three documents that I propose to submit in response to the consultation.I ‘d welcome criticisms that might make it more convincing. Use any parts of them you want in your own response.
- Submission to the Department of Health, for the consultation on the Pittilo report [download pdf].
- What is taught in degrees in herbal and traditional Chinese medicine? [download pdf]
- $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures [download pdf]
I’ve written quite a lot about the Pittilo report already, in particular A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor, and in The Times (see also the blog version).
Intriguingly, these posts are at number 2 in a Google search for “Michael Pittilo”.
Briefly, the back story is this.
It is now over a year since the Report to Ministers from “The Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK” [download the report].
The chair of the steering group was Professor R. Michael Pittilo, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. The reason thet the report is so disastrously bad in its assessment of evidence is that it was written entirely by people with vested interests.
The committee consisted of five acupuncturists, five herbalists and five representatives of traditional Chinese medicine (plus eleven observers). There was not a single scientist or statistician to help in the assessment of evidence. And it shows: The assessment of the evidence in the report was execrable. Every one of the committee members would have found themselves out of work if they had come to any conclusion other than that their treatment works, Disgracefully, these interests were not declared in the report, though they are not hard to find. The university of which the chair is vice-chancellor runs a course in homeopathy, the most discredited of the popular forms of alternative medicine. That tells you all you need to know about the critical faculties of Michael Pittilo.
The two main recommendations of this Pittilo report are that
- Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine should be subject to statutory regulation by the Health Professions Council
- Entry to the register normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours
Let’s consider the virtue of these two recommendations.
Regulation by the Health Professions Council (HPC) breaks their own rules
For a start, this should be ruled out by the HPC’s own rules, which require “Practise based on evidence of efficacy” as a condition for registration. Since there is practically no “evidence of efficacy”, it follows that the HPC can’t regulate acupuncture, herbal and Chinese medicine as Pittilo recommends. Or so you’d think. But the official mind seems to have an infinite capacity for doublespeak. The HPC published a report on 11 September 2008, Regulation of Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners.
The report says
1. Medical herbalists, acupuncturists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners should be statutorily regulated in the public interest and for public safety reasons.
2. The Health Professions Council is appropriate as the regulator for these professions.
3. The accepted evidence of efficacy overall for these professions is limited, but regulation should proceed because it is in the public interest.
In other words, the HPC simply decided to ignore its own rules, Its excuse for doing so is that regulation would protect “public safety” . But it simply would not do that. It is ell known that some Chinese herbs are adulterated with dangerous substances, but laws against that already exist. Trading Standards are much more likely to take appropriate action than the HPC. The Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) already deals with the licensing of herbal medicines. and, despite the fact that it recently betrayed its trust by allowing them to be labelled in a misleading way, they are the people to do it, not the HPC.
The Pittilo report (page 11) says
In future, it is hoped that more Government funding can be allocated to research into traditional/herbal medicines and acupuncture and that grants will become available to encourage practitioners to undertake postgraduate research work.
So they are asking for more government money.
In March 2007, the Chinese Government pledged to spend over $130 million over the next five years on research into the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine. It is to be hoped that this money will be targeted effectively to evaluate TCM.
It seems to have escaped the notice of Pittilo that roughly 100 percent of trials of Chinese medicine done in China come out positive. Elsewhere, very few come out positive,(see Vickers et al., 1998, Controlled Clinical Trials, 19, 159-166: download reprint) The Department of Health would be unwise to rely on Chinese research. Remember that modern acupuncture was not so much a product of ancient wisdom, but rather it stems from nationalist propaganda by Mao Tse-Tung, who needed a cheap way to keep the peasants quiet, though he was too sensible to use it himself.
The HPC report (page 5) cites these with the words
” . . . a lack of evidence of efficacy should not prevent regulation but that the professions should be encouraged and funded to strengthen the evidence base.”
This sentence seems to assume that the outcomes of research will be to strengthen the evidence base. Thus far, precisely the opposite has been the case. The Pittilo group has apparently not noticed that the US National Institutes of Health has already spent a billion dollars on research in alternative medicine and failed to come up with a single effective treatment. There are better ways to spend money on health. See, for example $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures found. .An enornous amount of research has already been done and the outcomes have produced no good treatments,
The proposed regulation would endanger the public, not protect it.
The excuse given by the HPC for breaking its own rules is that it should do so to protect the public.
Likewise Ann Keen, Health Minister, said:
“Patient safety is paramount, whether people are accessing orthodox health service treatments or using alternative treatments”
So first we need to identify what dangers are posed by acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.
- Acupuncture is fairly safe. Its biggest danger lies in the unjustified claims that are routinely made for what can be achieved by being impaled by needles. This poses a danger that people may use acupuncture in place of treatments that work
- Herbal medicines are unstandardised, so even the very few that may work are dangerous to patients because the dose of active principle is unknown and varies from one batch to another. Taking a herbal medicine is a bit like swallowing a random number of tablets, False health claims pose a danger to patients too, when they cause patients to avoid treatments that work.
- Traditional Chinese Medicine is probably the most dangerous. Like the other two, the medicines are unstandardised so the dose is never known. False health claims abound. And in addition to these dangers, many cases have been found of Chinese medicines being adulterated with poisonous substances or with conventional drugs.
The form of regulation proposed by Pittilo would do little or nothing to protect the public from any of these dangers.
The proposals accept the herbal and Chinese medicine as traditionally practised. Nothing would be done about one of the major dangers, the lack of standardisation. That is a problem that was solved by pharmacologists in the 1930s, when international standards were set for the biological activity of things like tincture of digitalis, and assays were devised so that different batches could be adjusted to the same potency. Now, 80 years later, it is being proposed by Pittilo that we should return to the standards of safety that existed at the beginning of the last century. That is a threat to public safety., but the proposed regulation would do nothing whatsoever to protect the public from this dangerous practice. On the contrary, it would give official government sanction to it.
The other major danger is that patients are deceived by false health claims. This is dangerous (as well as dishonest) because it can cause patients to avoid treatments that work better, The internet abounds with claims that herbs can cure anything from diabetes to cancer. Many are doubtless illegal, but regulators like the HPC have traditionally ignored such claims: they are left to Trading Standards, Advertising Standards and the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) to deal with. The MHRA already also has responsibility for monitoring side effects. The HPC would not do this.
The analogy with chiropractic and the GCC
The foolishness of allowing statutory regulation for unproven treatments has recently been illustrated quite dramatically by the case of chiropractic. Chiropractors have had statutory regulation by the General Chiropractic Council, which was established by the Chiropractors Act of 1994. The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) recently decided to sue the science writer, Simon Singh, for defamation when he cast doubt on some of the claims made by chiropractors, in particular their claims to be able to cure colic and asthma in children. That led to close examination of the claims. In fact there is no reason to think that spinal manipulation works for asthma, or that it works for colic. In fact there is quite good evidence that the claims are false. The result was that about 600 well-justified complaints have been lodged with the GCC (enough to bankrupt the GCC if the complaints are dealt with properly).
The point of this story is that the statutory regulator had nothing whatsoever to prevent these false health claims being made. Two of the complaints concern practices run by the chair of the GCC. Worse, the GCC actually endorsed such claims. The statutory regulator saw its duty to defend chiropractic (apart from a handful of cases of sexual misdemeanours), not to protect the patient from false health claims. The respectability conferred by statutory regulation made false health claims easier and endangered the public. It would be a disaster if the same mistake were made again.
On 11th December 2008 I got a letter form the HPC which said
in our opinion a lack of evidence of efficacy would not impede our ability to set standards or deal with complaints we receive. The vast majority of cases we consider are related to conduct.
But perhaps that is because they haven’t tried “regulating” quacks before. Now that the public is far more conscious about health fraud than it used to be, one can predict confidently that the HPC would be similarly overwhelmed by a deluge of complaints about the unjustified health claims made by acupuncturists, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. There is no shortage of them to complain about.
The education problem
The Pittilo report recommends that the entry level for registration should be a bachelors degree with honours. At first sight it seems reasonable to ask that practitioners should be ‘properly qualified’, but when one looks at what is actually taught on these degrees it becomes clear that they endanger, rather than protect, the public,
There are two very big problems with this recommendation.
Firstly, you can’t have a bachelors degree with honours until after you have decided whether or not there is anything useful to teach. If and when any of the subjects under consideration and shown to work to a useful extent, then it would be quite reasonable to establish degrees in them. Even the report does not pretend seriously that that stage has been reached. The proposal to set up degrees in subjects, at least some of which are quite likely to have no more than placebo value, is self-evidently nonsense,
The time for degrees, and the time for government endorsement by statutory regulation, is after the therapies have been shown to work, not before.
The absurdity of thinking that the public will be protected because a practitioner has a degree in, say, acupuncture, is shown with startling clarity by a recently revealed examination paper in acupuncture’
You can download the entire exam paper. Here are a few highlights from it.
So students, in 2009, are being taught the crudest form of vitalism.
Teaching of traditional Chinese medicine is just as bad. Here are two slides from a course run by the University of Westminster.
The first ‘explains’ the mysterious and entirly mythical “Qi”.
So “Qi” means breath, air, vapour, gas, energy, vitalism. This is meaningless nonsense.
The second slide shows the real dangers posed by the way Chinese medicine is taught, The symptoms listed at the top could easily be a clue to serious illness, yat students are taught to treat them with ginger. Degrees like this endanger the public.
There are more mind-boggling slides from lectures on Chinese medicine and cancer: they show that what students are being taught is terrifyingly dangerous to patients.
It is entirely unacceptable that students are being taught these ancient myths as though they were true, and being encouraged to treat sick people on their basis. The effect of the Pittilo recommendations would be to force new generations of students to have this sort of thing forced on them. In fact the course for which this exam was set has already closed its doors. That is the right thing to do.
Here’s another example. The course leader for “BSc (Hons) Herbal Medicine” at the Univsrsity of Central Lancashire is Graeme Tobyn BA. But Tobyn is not only a herbalist but also an astrologer. In an interview he said
“At the end I asked her if I could cast her horoscope. She threw up her hands and said, ‘I knew this would happen if I came to an alternative practitioner.”
“I think the ruler of the ascendant was applying to Uranus in the ninth house, which was very pertinent.”
This would be preposterous even in the life style section of a downmarket women’s magazine, The Pittilo report wants to make degrees run my people like this compulsory. Luckily the Univerity of Central Lancashire is much more sensible and the course is being closed.
The matter is, in any case, being taken out of the hands of the government by the fact that universities are closing degrees in complementary medicine, including courses in some of those under discussion here, The University of Salford and the University of Central Lancashire have recently announced the closure of all the degree programmes in complementary and alternative medicine. The largest provider of such degrees, the University of Westminster has already shut down two of them, and the rest are being assessed at the moment. It is likely that the rest will be closed in the future.
The revelation that Westminster had been teaching its first year students that “amethysts emit high yin energy” and that students had been taught to diagnose disease and choose treatments by means of a dowsing pendulum, showed very clearly the sort of utter nonsense that undergraduates were being forced to learn to get a ‘bachelors degree with honours’. It stretches credulity to its limits to imagine that the public is protected by degrees like this. Precisely the opposite is true. The universities have recognised this, and shut the degrees. One exception is Professor Pittilo’s own university which continues to run a course in homeopathy, the most discredited of all the popular types alternative medicine.
A simpler, more effective and cheaper way to protect the public
I must certainly agree with the minister that protection of the public is an important matter. Having established that the Pittllo recommendations are more likely to endanger the public than protect them, it is essential to suggest alternative proposals that would work better.
Luckily, that is easy, because mechanisms already exist for dealing with the dangers that were listed above. The matter of adulteration, which is serious in traditional Chinese medicine, is a matter that is already the responsibility of the Office of Trading Standards. The major problem of false claims being made for treatment is also the responsibility of the Office of Trading Standards, which has a statutory duty to enforce the Unfair Trading Consumer Protection Regulations of May 2008. These laws state, for example, that
“One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”
The monitoring of false claims, and of side effects of treatments, is also the responsibility of the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA).
Rather than setting up complicated, expensive and ineffective ‘regulation’ by the HPC, all that need to be done is to ensure that the MHRA and/or Trading Standards have the funds to enforce existing laws. At the moment, they are not being implemented effectively, so I’d recommend that responsibility for enforcing the law against false health claims be transferred entirely to the MHRA, which has much more expertise in such matters than Trading Standards This would be both cheaper and more effective than the present system in which the responsibility is divided between the two organisations in an unclear way.
This proposal would protect the public against unsafe and adulterated treatments, and it would protect the public against false and fraudulent claims. That is what matters. It would do so more effectively,
more cheaply and more honestly than the Pittilo recommendations. There would be no reduction in patient choice either, There is no proposal to ban acupuncture, herbal medicine or traditional Chinese medicine. All that is necessary is to ensure that they don’t endanger the public.
Since the root of the problem lies in the fact that the evidence for the effectiveness is very weak. the question of efficacy, and cost-benefit ratio, should be referred to NICE. This was recommended by the House of Lords Report (2000). It is recommended again by the Smallwood report (sponsored by the Prince of Wales Foundation). It is baffling that this has not been done already. It does not seem wise to spend large amounts of money on new research at the moment, in the light of the fact that the US National Institutes of Health has already spent over $1 billion on such research without finding a single useful treatment.
The results of all this research has been to show that hardly any alternative treatment are effective. That cannot be ignored.
Recent events show that the halcyon days for alternative medicine are over. When the Pittilo report first appeared, it was greeted with derision in the media. For example, in The Times Alice Miles wrote
“This week came the publication of the Report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK. Otherwise known as twaddle.”
In the Independent, Dominic Lawson wrote
So now we will have degrees in quackery.
What, really, is the difference between acupuncture and psychic surgery?
People will no doubt continue to use it and that is their right and their responsibility. But if the government were to accept the recommendations of the Pittilo report it would be seen, quite rightly, as being anti-scientific and of posing a danger to the public.
Fortunately there is a better, and cheaper, way to protect the public.
Margaret McCartney’s blog in the Financial Times puts rhw view of a GP with her usual sense, humour and incisiveness.
“This report would, if implemented, create lots more nonsense exam papers funded by a lot more public money – and would produce practitioners without the absolutely crucial skill of how to assess evidence and reject or use it appropriately”
The Times has covered the story (with some interesting comments) Consultation on how to regulate complementary and alternative therapies
Times Higher Education UK-wide consultation on CAM regulation is launched Excellent response from Andy Lewis.
The Sun has by far the best coverage up to now, Jane Symons writes “Regulating quacks helps them prey on gullible patients“
On 23rd May 2009, the Financial Times magazine published a six-page cover story about pseudo-scientific degrees by Richard Tomkins. The online version has the text but doesn’t do justice to the prominence that it was given. The print version had a much better title too, The Retreat from Reason. This article, which was some time in gestation, appeared shortly afte the last degree in homeopathy in the UK closed its doors. So perhaps it should have been called The Return of Reason. What’s interesting is that it has become commonplace for the mainstream newspapers to print articles like this and to dump some of their whackier lifestyle articles.
The print version had a much better title too, The Retreat from Reason, with a two-page spread..
They published the entire ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine‘ as a sidebar on page 4.
To these has now been added, inspired by Jack of Kent,
Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant
One part of the article that I particularly enjoyed is this.
George Lewith, professor of health research at the University of Southampton’s medical school, is also director of the Centre for Complementary and Integrated Medicine, a private practice with clinics in Southampton and London’s West End, so it is no surprise that he is ready to speak out in support of complementary therapies. In fact, Southampton University – a member of the elite Russell Group – does not offer degree courses in complementary medicine, but Lewith defends the idea of offering them in principle, on the basis that, done properly, they produce better-trained practitioners. “Without the new universities’ involvement we might be faced with the quackery we saw in the 1940s and 1950s, when these people were outside medicine and were practising in an alternative fringe culture,” he says.
Sorry George, you are still an “alternative fringe culture”. And universities are realising that, and shutting down courses all over the place.
A response in the Finacial Times
The FT published one response in its letter column, A bilious attack on complementary medicine.
“Sir, Like many journalists, Richard Tomkins has been over-impressed by the scientific credentials of Professors David Colquhoun and Edzard Ernst as they carry on their absurdly over-stated, arrogant and irresponsible campaign against complementary medicine (“The retreat of reason”, May 23)”
and then the trump card
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”
That’s the line used by quacks again and again and again (see, for example, integrative baloney @ Yale). I guess they have never heard of type 1 and type 2 errors. But that is a bit technical for homeopaths, so put it more simply. There is a quite remarkable absence of evidence for tooth fairies. So they must exist. Get it?
The letter is from Allen Parrott of Yeovil. Could that be the Allen Parrott of the British Acupuncture Accreditation Board? If so he is “is an adult educationist who was Dean of Adult and Community Education at Yeovil College and a lecturer in the School of Education at Exeter University. As well as his work for the Board, he is currently working as an educational adviser for the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Deanery in the NHS.”. So no reason to worry about the standards of education in Yeovil, then.
Now the official ‘guidance’ is out, and it is indeed quite as bad as the draft.
The relevant bits now read thus.
- Offer one of the following treatment options, taking into account patient preference: an exercise programme, a course of manual therapy or a course of acupuncture. Consider offering another of these options if the chosen treatment does not result in satisfactory improvement.
- Consider offering a structured exercise programme tailored to the person:
- This should comprise of up to a maximum of 8 sessions over a period of up to 12 weeks.
- Offer a group supervised exercise programme, in a group of up to 10 people.
- A one-to-one supervised exercise programme may be offered if a group programme is not suitable for a particular person.
- Consider offering a course of manual therapy, including spinal manipulation, comprising up to a maximum of nine sessions over a period of up to 12 weeks
- Consider offering a course of acupuncture needling comprising up to a maximum of 10 sessions over a period of up to 12 weeks.
The summary guidance still doesn’t mention chiropractic explicitly, just a coy reference to “spinal manipulation”. At a time when the British Chiropractic Association is busy trying to suppress free speech via the law courts, I guess it isn’t surprising that they don’t like to use the word.
The bias in the recommendations is perhaps not surprising because the guidance development group had a heavy representation from alternative medicine advocates, and of people with a record of what, is, in my view, excessive tolerance of mumbo-jumbo.
Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) played a large part in writing the guidance. That is an organisation thar has steadfastly refused to make any sort of sensible statement of policy about magic medicine. It isn’t long since I was told by a senior person at the RCGP that there was nothing odd about neuro-linguistic programming. That does not bode well.
Professor Martin Underwood, Professor of Primary Care Research Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick. Underwood chaired the guidance development group. Martin Underwood is also a GP in Coventry See also the British Osteopathic Association. Underwood was lead author of the BEAM trial (download reprint). It is well worth reading the comments on this trial too. It was a randomised trial (though not, of course, blind).
Our main aim was to estimate, for patients consulting their general practitioner with back pain, the effectiveness of adding the following to best care in general practice: a class based exercise programme (“back to fitness”), a package of treatment by a spinal manipulator (chiropractor, osteopath, or physiotherapist), or manipulation followed by exercise
In other words, none of them worked very well. The paper failed to distinguish between manipulation by physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths and so missed a valuable chance to find out whether there is an advantage to employing people from alternative medicine (the very problem that this NICE guidance should have dealt with)
Steve Vogel, another member of the guidance development group, is an osteopath. Osteopathy has cast off its shady origins better than chiropractic, but it remains a largely evidence-free zone, and is still usually classified as alternative medicine.
Peter Dixon DC FCC FBCA is chairman of the General Chiropractic Council and founder of Peter Dixon Associates. They run six chiropractic clinics. The claims made by these clinics on their web site are mostly related to musculo-skeletal conditions (not, all spine-related however). But they also include
“Chiropractic is also suitable for relieving the symptoms of stress, and optimizing the way the body works is one of the best ways of enhancing health and wellbeing.”
I wonder how they could justify that claim? Then we get
A chiropractor is always willing to discuss individual conditions or answer questions in order to assess whether chiropractic may be of benefit.
Thanks for the invitation. I accepted it. After the first two phone calls, I had learned all I needed.
The first of Peter Dixon’s clinics that I called, was asked about my son who was suffeiing from perpetual colic. I asked for advice. I was put through to the chiropractor. Here are some extracts from the conversation.
“I think now it’s termed irritable baby syndrome. . . . . We’ve found chiropractic is very effective for colic . . . . £50 up to 3/4 hour which would involve taking a case history, examining the baby, with regard to seeing how the joints in the spine work because often colic is down to, er um, faulty movement patterns in the spine. We deal with an awful lot of things to do with the frame -how the spine moves -and it’s often problems with the way that the bones of the spine move in infants and babies that is the underlying cause in colicky symptoms. . . usually on the whole, I’ve shot myself in the foot by saying this in the past, if there are -um when I say back problems they’re usually temporary issues -when they are there the response for most babies is quite quick . . . it depends on how it’s related to what’s gone on in the birth process -there is usually some traumatic cause and it usually sets up a problem in the upper neck or the mid-back and that will drive those colic symptoms. . . . Yes it’s quite a straightforward thing we just check the baby’s spine and see if it’s problem we can deal with or not.”
Yes, I think you just shot yourself in the foot again. I have no idea in what fraction of cases a chiropractor would fail to claim that it was a case that they could deal with. At least that possibility was envisaged. But when I asked where he’d refer me to in such case I was told it might be a result of bottle feeding -“what they consume”. So I expect it would have been sent to some sort of “nutritional therapist” who would have used one of their usual battery of unreliable tests for food allergies.
I tried a second clinic in Peter Dixon’s empire and asked if chiropractic could help with asthma.”It can do, depending on what type of asthma you have". After some questions I was asked
“Do you have any general aches and pains otherwise, any tension .problems round the rib cage or thoracic spine . . . There are two things we’d look as chiropractors as to whether we could help or not and that would include the tension round the rib cage -in any type of asthma you’ll become tight round the rib cage and merely by keeping that area loose you’d help to stop the asthma from becoming quite as bad. And the second part is we’d look at the neck area with you to see if there is any restriction there -which houses the nerve supply to the lungs which can be indicated in some asthma cases also.”
I was invited to come for a free screen, so I asked if it usually worked quickly, “It depends what the problem is but you’d need a course I suspect”. £45 for the first appointment then £28 per session. “In most cases you’d need to look at a six to eight session course”.
Would anyone with experience of crying babies or of asthma like to comment on these proposed treatments? They are not my idea of evidence-based treatments and I find it quite surprising that someone who sponsors them is thought appropriate to write guidance for NICE.
This sort of ‘sting’ always makes me feel a bit uneasy, but it seems to be the only way to find out what actually goes on. And what goes on has all the appearance of classic bait and switch. You go in for your backache, and before you know where you are you are being sold a course of treatment to stop your baby crying.
Media follow-up after the NICE announcement
Sadly, I heard that the Today programme (my favourite news programme) was pretty wet. if only their science reporting was as good as their politics reporting.
The 27th May was certainly pretty busy for me, Apart from a couple of local paper interviews, this is what happened,
Sky News TV. Richard Suchet and two cameraman came to UCL and filmed a lot of stuff out of which a 20 second clip was used. And then they grumble that they don’t make money.
BBC TV 6 o’clock News. Similar, but at least only two people this time. Both TV stations spent ages showing pictures of people having needles pushed into them and very little time discussing the problems. A pathetically bad attempt at science reporting. Radio, on the whole, did much better
BBC Three Counties Radio (09.20) Host Ronnie Barbour, The daytime talk shows may be appalling to some of us, but the hosts did a far better job of airing the problems than TV [download the mp3].
Radio 5 Live Victoria Derbyshire [download the mp3]
BBC Radio Sheffield (12.05) was the best talk show by far. First speaker was Steve Vogel, the osteopath from the guidance development group. Although invited by the rather sensible host, Rony, to respond to the idea that a secondary consequence of the guidance would be to introduce hocus-pocus, he steadfastly refused to answer the question. At the end a rather sensible GP summed up the view from the coalface. [play the mp3]
Radio 4 PM programme This excellent early evening news programme is run by Eddie Mair. It was the best interview yet. The other side was put by Martin Underwood, chair of the guidance development group [play the mp3]
Underwood said “the evidence shows that it [acupuncture] works”. I disagree. The evidence shows that acupuncture, in a non-blind comparison with no acupuncture shows a small, variable additional effect that doesn’t last and is of marginal clinical significance, That is not what I call “works”. Underwood then indulges in the subgroup analysis fallacy by asserting that a few people get a large benefit from acupuncture. Or perhaps a few people just happen to get better that day. I was not convinced.
More 4 News TV 20.20 was an interview, with the other side being put by my old friend, George Lewith.
During the introduction, an acupuncturist. Lisa Sherman, ‘explained’ acupuncture in the usual sort of utterly meaningless words that illustrate perfectly the problem.
George Lewith said that “we don’t have a good pretend form of acupuncture”. “We don’t have a good placebo and we can demonstrate that acupuncture is literally twice as effective as conventional care”. The first is simply nonsense: huge efforts have gone into developing good controls in acupuncture studies (see, for example, Barker Bausell’s book, Snake Oil Science). And I hope that George will send the references for his “twice as effective” claim. It seems to me to be nothing short of preposterous.
So what went wrong?
One problem could be regarded as medical arrogance. The fact is that the problem of low back pain has not been solved, either by drugs or anything else. It is a failure of medicine (and of pharmacology). That should be the premise of all discussions, and it smacks of arrogance not to tell people straight out. Of course there are some cases when causes can be identified, and perhaps remedied, usually by surgery, but these are the exceptions not the rule.
One consequence of the inability of medicine to help much is that patients get desperate, and willing to try anything. And of course if they happen to have a remission, that is attributed to the treatment, however preposterous that treatment may have been. Conditions like back pain that come and go unpredictable are a gift for quacks.
Another consequence, for researchers rather than patients, is to clutch at straws. Even small and inconsistent effects are seized on as ‘successes’. This phenomenon seems to be part of the reason for the NICE guidance. Another reason is, almost certainly, the grinding of axes by some of the people who wrote it.
What should be done now?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins is a sensible chap. He cares about evidence, But it does seem that in this case, he might have taken his eye off the ball, for once. In my opinion, he should restore the reputation of NICE by withdrawing this guidance and starting again.
An interesting document has come my way. It shows the responses of the guidance group to the consultation on the draft guidance. Many people made comments not unlike mone, but they were all brushed aside in a way that looks to me rather partisan. The document appears to have vanished from NICE’s web site, but you can download it here.
Friday 29th May. The Times prints a letter from two consultants in pain medicine, Joan Hestor and Stephen Ward. It says, inter alia
“As experienced pain specialists we feel that NICE has lost its way in publishing these guidelines.”
“We are saddened that NICE has chosen to ignore our important role and promote seemingly unworkable and for the most part clinically ineffective treatments”
Friday 29th May. NICE has had a good reputation in the USA for its important, and usually high-quality, attempts to assess what works and what doesn’t. That makes it all the sadder to see it condemned already from the USA for its latest effort. The excellent Yale neurologist, Steven Novella, has written about it on his Neurologica blog.
Friday 29th May. A correspondent points out that the costings of the guidance can be found on the NICE web site. Table 1 has a strong air of make-believe.
The Daily Mail (29 May 2009). Their article quotes serious criticisms of NICE.
Dr Ron Cooper, past chairman of the group and a consultant pain specialist in Northern Ireland, said: ‘I have never known so many pain medicine specialists to be so furious. More patients will end up having more expensive surgery, which is unnecessary, risky and has worse results.
‘NICE made it difficult for us to submit evidence to a committee on which there was not one experienced pain physician.
‘The guidelines will make us the laughing stock of Europe, Australia and the U.S. where pain specialists will continue to have full access to a wide range of treatments.’
Chirowatch suspended. 30 May 2009. The invaluable chiro-watch site, http://www.chirowatch.com, run by Dr Canadian physician, Dr Tom Polevoy, has been “suspended”. In fact the whole of his domain, healthwatcher.net, has been disabled. It seems that this was the result of a legal threat to his ISP, not by chiropractors this time, but by William O’Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group, which is far from being what the respectable-sounding title suggests, according to Dr Stephen Barrett. The site will be back soon, I’m told. Meanwhile you can read the suspended page here, and the only result of their hamfisted bullying will be to vastly increase the number of people who read it. You can read lots more at Quackwatch’s chirobase and at ebm-first.
A new blog, Not as NICE as you think appeared on May 30th. It is written by a pain physician, Stephen Ward. and is devoted to pointing out the serious problems raised by NICE’s guidance. It starts with the (very critical) World Institute of Pain Press Release.
British Medical Journal has more flak for the NICE guidelines
And the BMJ has published a letter signed by 50 consultants in pain medicine, NICE guidelines on low back pain are flawed.(this will probably appear as a letter in the print edition of the BMJ).
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) describes its job thus
“NICE is an independent organisation responsible for providing national guidance on promoting good health and preventing and treating ill health.”
Its Guidance document on Low Back Pain will be published on Wednesday 27 May 2009, but the newspapers have already started to comment, presumably on the assumption that it will have changed little from the Draft Guidance of September 2008. These comments may have to be changed as soon as the final version becomes available.
The draft guidance, though mostly sensible, has two recommendations that I believe to be wrong and dangerous. The recommendations include (page 7) these three.
- Consider offering a course of manual therapy including spinal manipulation of up to 9 sessions over up to 12 weeks.
- Consider offering a course of acupuncture needling comprising up to 10 sessions over a period of up to 12 weeks.
- Consider offering a structured exercise programme tailored to the individual.
All three of this options are accompanied by a footnote that reads thus.
“A choice of any of these therapies may be offered, taking into account patient preference.”
On the face if it, this might seem quite reasonable. All three choices seem to be about as effective (or ineffective) as each other, so why not let patients choose between them?
Actually there are very good reasons, but NICE does not seem to have thought about them. In the past I have had a high opinion of NICE but it seems that even they are now getting bogged down in the morass of political correctness and officialdom that is the curse of the Department of Health. It is yet another example of DC’s rule number one.
Never trust anyone who uses the word ‘stakeholder’.
They do use it, often.
So what is so wrong?
For a start, I take it that the reference to “spinal manipulation” in the first recommendation is a rather cowardly allusion to chiropractic. Why not say so, if that’s whar you mean? Chiropractic is mentioned in the rest of the report but the word doesn’t seem to occur in the recommendations. Is NICE perhaps nervous that it would reduce the credibility of the report if the word chiropractic were said out loud?
Well, they have a point, I suppose. It would.
That aside, here’s what’s wrong.
I take as my premise that the evidence says that no manipulative therapy has any great advantage over the others. They are all more or less equally effective. Perhaps I should say, more or less equally ineffective, because anyone who claims to have the answer to low back pain is clearly deluded (and I should know: nobody has fixed mine yet). So for effectiveness there are no good grounds to choose between exercise, physiotherapy, acupuncture or chiropractic. There is, though, an enormous cultural difference. Acupuncture and chiropractic are firmly in the realm of alternative medicine. They both invoke all sorts of new-age nonsense for which there isn’t the slightest good evidence. That may not poison your body, but it certainly poisons your mind.
Acupuncturists talk about about “Qi”, “meridians”, “energy flows”. The fact that “sham” and “real” acupuncture consistently come out indistinguishable is surely all the evidence one needs to dismiss such nonsense. Indeed there is a small group of medical acupuncturists who do dismiss it. Most don’t. As always in irrational subjects, acupuncture is riven by internecine strife between groups who differ in the extent of their mystical tendencies,
Chiropractors talk of “subluxations”, an entirely imaginary phenomenon (but a cause of much unnecessary exposure to X-rays). Many talk of quasi-religious things like “innate energy”. And Chiropractic is even more riven by competing factions than acupuncture. See, for example, Chiropractic wars Part 3: internecine conflict.
The bait and switch trick
This is the basic trick used by ‘alternative therapists’ to gain respectability.
There is a superb essay on it by the excellent Yale neurologist Steven Novella: The Bait and Switch of Unscientific Medicine. The trick is to offer some limited and reasonable treatment (like back manipulation for low back pain). This, it seems, is sufficient to satisfy NICE. But then, once you are in the showroom, you can be exposed to all sorts of other nonsense about “subluxations” or “Qi”. Still worse, you will also be exposed to the claims of many chiropractors and acupuncturists to be able to cure all manner of conditions other than back pain. But don’t even dare to suggest that manipulation of the spine is not a cure for colic or asthma or you may find yourself sued for defamation. The shameful legal action of the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh (follow it here) led to an addition to DC’s Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine.
(In the face of such tragic behaviour, one has to be able to laugh).
Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.
NICE seems to have fallen for the bait and switch trick, hook line and sinker.
The neglected consequences
Once again, we see the consequences of paying insufficient attention to the Dilemmas of Alternative Medicine.
The lying dilemma
If acupuncture is recommended we will have acupuncturists telling patients about utterly imaginary things like “Qi” and “meridians”. And we will have chiropractors telling them about subluxations and innate energy. It is my opinion that these things are simply make-believe (and that is also the view of a minority of acupuncturist and chiropractors). That means that you have to decide whether the supposed benefits of the manipulation are sufficient to counterbalance the deception of patients.
Some people might think that it was worth it (though not me). What is unforgivable is not to consider even the question. The NICE guidance says not a word about this dilemma. Why not?
The training dilemma
The training dilemma is even more serious. Once some form of alternative medicine has successfully worked the Bait and Switch trick and gained a toehold in the NHS, there will be an army of box-ticking HR zombies employed to ensure that they have been properly trained in “subluxations” or “Qi”. There will be quangos set up to issue National Occupational Standards in “subluxations” or “Qi”. Skills for Health will issue “competences” in “subluxations” or “Qi” (actually they already do). There will be courses set up to teach about “subluxations” or “Qi”, some even in ‘universities’ (there already are).
The respectability problem
But worst of all, it will become possible for aupuncturists and chiropractors to claim that they now have official government endorsement from a prestigious evidence-based organisation like NICE for “subluxations” or “Qi”. Of course this isn’t true. In fact the words “subluxations” or “Qi” are not even mentioned in the draft report. That is the root of the problem. They should have been. But omitting stuff like that is how the Bait and Switch trick works.
Alternative medicine advocates crave, above all, respectability and acceptance. It is sad that NICE seems to have given them more credibility and acceptance without having considered properly the secondary consequences of doing so,
How did this failure of NICE happen?
It seems to have been a combination of political correctness, failure to consider secondary consequences, and excessive influence of the people who stand to make money from the acceptance of alternative medicine.
Take, for example, the opinion of the British Pain Society. This organisation encompasses not just doctors. It
includes “doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals actively engaged in the diagnosis and treatment of pain and in pain research for the benefit of patients”. Nevertheless, their response to the draft guidelines pointed out that the manipulative therapies as a whole were over-represented.
The guidelines assess 9 large groups of interventions of which manual therapies are only one part. The full GDG members panel of 13 individuals included two proponents of spinal manipulation/mobilisation (P Dixon and S Vogel). In addition, the chair of the panel (M Underwood) is the lead author of the UKBEAM trial on which the positive recommendation for
It seems that the Pain Society were quite right.
LBC 97.3 Breakfast Show (25 May 2009) had a quick discussion on acupuncture (play mp3 file). After I had my say, the other side was put by Rosey Grandage. She has (among other jobs) a private acupuncture practice so she is not quite as unbiassed as me). As usual, she misrepresents the evidence by failing to distinguish between blind and non-blind studies. She also misrepresented what I said by implying that I was advocating drugs. That was not my point and I did not mention drugs (they, like all treatments, have pretty limited effectiveness, and they have side effects too). She said “there is very good evidence to show they (‘Qi’ and ‘meridians’] exist”. That is simply untrue.
There can’t be a better demonstration of the consequences of falling for bait and switch than the defence mounted by Rosey Grandage. NICE may not mention “Qi” and “meridians”; but the people they want to allow into the NHS have no such compunctions.
I first came across Rosey Grandage when I discovered her contribution to the Open University/BBC course K221. That has been dealt with elsewhere. A lot more information about acupuncture has appeared since then. She doesn’t seem to have noticed it. Has she not seen the Nordic Cochrane Centre report? Nor read Barker Bausell, or Singh & Ernst? Has she any interest in evidence that might reduce her income? Probably not.
Where to find out more
An excellent review of chiropractic can be found at the Layscience site. It was written by the indefatigable ‘Blue Wode’ who has provided enormous amounts of information at the admirable ebm-first site (I am authorised to reveal that ‘Blue Wode’ is the author of that site). There you will also find much fascinating information about both acupuncture and about chiropractic.
I’m grateful to ‘Blue Wode’ for some of the references used here.
It seems that bits of good news don’t come singly. First honours degrees in acupuncture vanish, Now a big chain of shops selling Chinese herbs and acupuncture has gone into administration.
It seems that, at last, people are getting fed up with being conned out of their hard-earned money
A local newspaper, The North Herts Comet reported thus.
Customers of Herbmedic, which trades under the name Herbs and Acupuncture, on Queensway in Stevenage have been left counting the cost after shelling out hundreds of pounds for treatment they never received.
The company, which has practices across the country, is now in the hands of receivers, Macintyre Hudson.
Sandra Emery, of The Paddocks in Stevenage, paid £350 for 10 treatment sessions, but only received one before the practice closed.
She said: “A standard course of treatment is 10 sessions, so most customers will have bought this package.
Claudia Gois, of Walden End in Stevenage, paid £240 for 12 treatment sessions but only received four before the practice closed.
She said: “I went there on Friday and it was closed. There was no warning or anything.
“I got in touch with head office and they said it’s very unlikely I will get money back.
No it wasn’t. A visit to Companies House soon settled the matter. The whole company is insolvent, as of 27 March 2009..
Criticisms of Herbmedic
This chain of shops was investigated by the BBC’s
Inside Out programme. (September 25th 2006).
“We sent an undercover reporter to branches of the Herbmedic chain in southern England.
On each occasion, the reporter claimed to be suffering from tiredness and was prescribed herbal remedies after a consultation lasting less than five minutes.
The herbalists, who describe themselves as “doctors”, didn’t ask any questions about the patient’s medical history or take any notes.”
This is so bad that even Andrew Fowler, a past President of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, described it as “malpractice”.
“Herbmedic has been investigated by the authorities in the past.
In 2002, trading standards officers prosecuted the branch in Southampton for selling herbal remedies with 26 times the permitted legal limit of lead.
And in October 2003, the Advertising Standards Authority banned Herbmedic from describing its practitioners as “doctors”.
Despite the ban, all three of the stores visited by Inside Out referred to the herbalist as the doctor.”
Read the Advertising Standards report. Seven different complaints against Herbmedic were upheld.
This is entirely consistent with my own experience. I went into one of their shops and asked about a cure for diabetes (hoping the be able to refer them to Trading Standards, but the young lady behind the counter had such a poor grasp of English that her reply was incomprehensible. She just kept trying to push me into having a consultation with “the doctor” who appeared to speak no English at all. I left.
The chequered history of Herbmedic
The company that his just gone into administration is Herbmedic Centre Ltd. It has been in existence for only two years. Its predecessor, known simply as Herbmedic, was dissolved on 13 March 2007, Companies House said
Company Filing History Type Date Description Order GAZ2(A) 13/03/2007 FINAL GAZETTE: DISSOLVED VIA VOLUNTARY STRIKE-OFF GAZ1(A) 28/11/2006 FIRST GAZETTE NOTICE FOR VOLUNTARY STRIKE-OFF 652a 16/10/2006 APPLICATION FOR STRIKING-OFF
Another Chinese medicine chain seems to be having a few problems too
Harmony Medical Distribution Ltd (“specialists in acupuncture and holistic medicine”) seems to be still in business(web site here), but several very similar companies have been dissolved, Harmomy Medics Ltd (dissolved 19 Sep 2006) ,, Harmony Medical Services (UK ) Ltd. (dissolved 6 May 2008) and Harmony Medical Services Ltd (dissolved 17 Oct 2008)
Given this history of companies that dissolve every couple of years and then mysteriously reincarnate with a slightly different name, one wonders if this really is the end of herbmedic, or it is just a device for shedding bad debts. Is this just another “pre-pack administration“?
Watch this space for more.
What’s the latest evidence on acupuncture anyway?
A correspondent drew my attention to the 2009 Annual Evidence Update on acupuncture complied by the NHS Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library. This includes no fewer than 56 systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Although the reviews are complied by alternative medicine sympathisers, they seem mostly to be pretty fair. Well apart form one thing.
Almost all of the reviews fail to come up with any positive evidence that acupuncture works well enough to be clinically useful. Only two come close, and they are the two singled out as “editor’s picks”. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising given that the editor is Dr Mike Cummings.
Again and again, the results are inconclusive: #8 is pretty typical
Acupuncture for tension-type headache: a meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials.
This meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture compared with sham for tension-type headache has limited efficacy for the reduction of headache frequency. There exists a lack of standardization of acupuncture point selection and treatment course among randomized, controlled trials. More research is needed to investigate the treatment of specific tension-type headache subtypes.
Vast effort and a lot of money is being put into trials, yet there are very few (if any) positive results. Very often there are no results at whatsoever. All we hear, again and again, is “more research is needed”.
At some point someone will have to decide it is all a charade and start to spend time and money on investigating things that are more promising.
A correspondent checked with Companies House to discover more about two of the directors of Herbmedic, Mr. Li Mao and Mr Xiao Xuan Chen. They have a chequered history indeed. [download the complete list]
Mr. Li Mao is, or has been, on the board of 31 different companies. Of these 6 are active, 5 are in administration, 14 were dissolved, 4 were liquidated and 2 are active with proposal to strike off. Not only is Her Medic centre Ltd in administration, but so is Dr China (UK) Ltd, and Great Chinese Herbal Medicine Ltd
With record like that, my correspondent wonders whether they should be disqualified.
In March 2007 I wrote a piece in Nature on Science degrees without the science. At that time there were five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy. A couple of weeks ago I checked the UCAS site for start in 2009, and found there was only one full “BSc (hons)” left and that was at Westminster University.
Today I checked again and NOW THERE ARE NONE.
A phone call to the University of Westminster tonight confirmed that they have suspended entry to their BSc (Hons) homeopathy degree.
They say that they have done so because of “poor recruitment”. It was a purely financial decision. Nothing to do with embarrasment. Gratifying though it is that recruits for the course are vanishing, that statement is actually pretty appalling It says that the University of Westminster doesn’t care whether it’s nonsense, but only about whether it makes money.
Nevertheless the first part of this post is not entirely outdated before it even appeared, because homeopathy will still be taught as part of Complementary Therapies. And Naturopathy and “Nutritional Therapy” are still there..
According to their ‘School of Integrated Health‘, “The University of Westminster has a vision of health care for the 21st Century”. Yes, but it is what most people would call a vision of health care in the 18th century.
The revelation that the University of Westminster teaches that Amethysts emit high Yin energy caused something of a scandal.
Since then I have acquired from several sources quite a lot more of their teaching material, despite the fact that the university has refused to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
In view of the rather silly internal review conducted by Westminster’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts, this seems like a good moment to make a bit more of it public,
I think that revelation of the material is justified because it is in the
public interest to know how the University if Westminster is spending taxpayers’ money. Another motive is to defend the reputation of the post-1992 universities. I have every sympathy with the ex-polytechnics in their efforts to convert themselves into universities. In many ways they have succeeded. That effort
is impeded by teaching mystical versions of medicine.
If the University of Westminster is being brought into disrepute, blame its vice-chancellor, not me.
Here are a few slides from a lecture on how good spider venom is for you. It is from Course 3CTH502 Homeopathic Materia Medica II. No need to worry though, because they are talking about homeopathic spider venom, so there is nothing but sugar in the pills. The involvement of spiders is pure imagination. No more than mystical gobbledygook.
You are in hurry, or play with your fingers? You need spider venom pills (that contain no spider venom).
You break furniture? Time goes too fast for you? Try the tarantula-free tarantula pills.
You are preoccupied with sex? You play with ropes? What you need is Mygale (which contains no Mygale)
Much more seriously, the same sugar pills are recommended for serious conditions, chorea, ‘dim sight’, gonorrhoea, syphilis and burning hot urine.
This isn’t just preposterous made-up stuff. It is dangerous.
There is a whole lot more fantasy stuff in the handouts for Homeopathy Materia Medica II (3CTH502). Here are a couple of examples.
Aurum metallicum (metallic gold) [Download the whole handout]
Affinities MIND, VASCULAR SYSTEM, Nerves, Heart, Bones, Glands, Liver, Kidneys, RIGHT SIDE, Left side.
Causations Emotions. Ailments from disappointed love and grief, offence or unusual responsibility, abuse of mercury or allopathic drugs.
Aurum belongs to the syphilitic miasm but has elements of sycosis (Aur-Mur).
Potassium salts are the subject of some fine fantasy, in “The Kali’s” [sic]. (there is much more serious stuff to worry about here than a few misplaced apostrophes.). [Download the whole handout]
“The radioactive element of potassium emits negative electrons from the atom nucleus and is thought to be significant in the sphere of cell processes especially in relation to functions relating to automatism and rhythmicity.”
“Kali people are very conscientious with strong principles. They have their rules and they stick to them, ‘a man of his word’.”
“Potassium acts in a parasympathetic way, tending towards depression”
“They [“Kali people=] are not melancholic like the Natrum’s but rather optimistic.”
Radioactive potassium is involved in automaticity? Total nonsense.
Where is the science?
Yes, it is true that the students get a bit of real science. There isn’t the slightest trace that I can find of any attempt to resolve the obvious fact that what they are taught in the science bits contradict directly what they are told in the other bits. Sounds like a recipe for stress to me.
They even get a bit of incredibly elementary statistics. But they can’t even get that right. This slide is from PPP – Res Quant data analysis.
“Involves parameters and/or distributions”. This has no useful meaning whatsoever, that I can detect.
“Tests hypotheses when population distributions are skewed”. Well yes, though nothing there about forms of non-Gaussian properties other than skew, nothing about normalising transformations, and nothing about the Central Limit theorem.
“Ranks data rather than the actual data itself”. This is plain wrong. Randomisation tests on the original data are generally the best (uniformly most powerful) sort of non-parametric test. It seems to have escaped the attention of the tutor that ranking is a short-cut approximation that allowed tables to be constructed, before we had computers.
The students are told about randomised controlled trials. But amazingly in the lecture PPP-RCTs, the little matter of blinding is barely mantioned. And the teacher’s ideas about randomisation are a bit odd too.
Sorry, but if you fiddle the randomisation, no amount of “careful scrutiny” will rescue you from bias.
An Introduction to Naturopathic Philosophy
Naturopathy is just about as barmy as homeopathy. You can see something about it at the University of Wales. How about this slide from Westminster’s An Introduction to Naturopathic Philosophy.
So if you get tuberculosis, it isn’t caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis? And the symptoms are “constructive”? So you don;t need to do anything. It’s all for the best really.
This isn’t just nonsense. It’s dangerous nonsense.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Ever wondered what the mysterious “Qi” is? Worry no more. All is explained on this slide.
It means breath, air, vapour, gas, energy, vitalism. Or perhaps prana? Is that quite clear now?
What can we make of this one? Anyone can see that the description is barely written in English and that vital information is missing (such as the age of the woman). And it’s nonsense to suggest that “invasion of cold” (during keyhole surgery!) would cause prolonged constriction of blood vessels (never mind that it would “consume yang qi”). Not being a clinician, I showed it to an oncologist friend. He said that it was impossible to tell from the description whether the problem was serious or not, but that any abdominal pain should be investigated properly. There isn’t anything here about referral for proper investigation. Just a lot of stuff about ginger and cinnamon. Anyone who was taught in this way could be a real danger to the public. It isn’t harmless nonsense It’s potentially harmful nonsense.
And finally, it’s DETOX
Surely everyone knows by now that ‘detox’ is no more than a marketing word? Well not at the University of Westminster. They have a long handout that tells you all the usual myths and a few new ones.
It is written by Jennifer Harper-Deacon, who describes herself modestly, thus.
Jennifer Harper-Deacon is a qualified and registered Naturopath and acupuncturist who holds a PhD in Natural Health and MSc in Complementary Therapies. She is a gifted healer and Reiki Master who runs her own clinic in Surrey where she believes in treating the ‘whole’ person by using a combination of Chinese medicine and naturopathic techniques that she has qualified in, including nutritional medicine, Chinese and Western herbalism, homoeopathy, applied kinesiology, reflexology, therapeutic massage, aromatherapy and flower remedies.
It seems that there is no limit on the number of (mutually incompatible) forms of nuttiness that she believes. Here are a few quotations from her handout for Westminster students.
“Detoxification is the single most powerful tool used by natural health professionals to prevent and reverse disease”
What? To “prevent and reverse” malaria? tuberculosis? Parkinson’s disease? AIDS? cancer?
“When you go on to a raw food only diet, especially fruit, the stored toxins are brought up from the deep organs such as the liver and kidneys, to the superficial systems of elimination.”;
Very odd. I always though that kidneys were a system of elimination.
“The over-use and mis-use of antibiotics has weakened the body’s ability to attack and destroy new strains of resistant bacteria, virulent viruses, which have led to our immune system becoming compromised.”
Certainly over-use and mis-use are problems. But I always thought it was the bacteria that became resistant.
“The beauty about detoxification therapy is that it addresses the very causative issues of health problems”
That is another dangerous and silly myth. Tuberculosis is not caused by mythical and un-named “toxins”. It is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
“Naturopathy follows the logic of cause and effect therefore believes that we simply need pure food and water, sunshine, air, adequate rest and sleep coupled with the right amount of exercise for health.”
Try telling that to someone with AIDS.
“Colon cleansing is one of the most important parts of any detoxification programme.”
The strange obsession with enemas in the alternative world is always baffling.
“Frankincense: holds the capacity to physically strengthen our defence system and can rebuild energy levels when our immune system is weak. Revered as a herb of protection, frankincense can also strengthen our spiritual defences when our Wei qi is low, making us more susceptible to negative energies. This calming oil has the ability to deepen the breath, helping us to let go of stale air and emotions, making it ideal oil to use inhale prior to meditating.”
This is so much hot air. There is a bit of evidence that frankincense might have some anti-inflammatory action and that’s it.
But this has to be my favourite.
“Remember when shopping to favour fruits and vegetables which are in season and locally grown (and ideally organic) as they are more vibrationally compatible with the body.”
Locally grown vegetables are “more vibrationally compatible with the body”? Pure mystical gobbledygook. Words fail me.
OK there’s a whole lot more, but that will do for now.
It’s good that Westminster is shutting down its Homeopathy BSc, but it seems they have a bit further to go.
Congratulations to the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, Michael Harloe.
Times Higher Education announced on 15th January 2009 Salford to shut complementary medicine BSc.
“The University of Salford is to stop offering undergraduate degrees in acupuncture and complementary medicine because they are no longer considered “a sound academic fit”.”
This is the first time that a University has decided to stop teaching quackery altogether. The university’s press officer told me (22 January 2009)
|“all the University’s programmes associated with complementary medicine within the School of Community, Health Sciences & Social Care will be run out. This includes the Homeopathy in Practice programme. “|
|Salford, before it became a university, was home to the great L.S. Lowry
Salford’s Peel building, where L.S.Lowry worked
“Managers concluded last year that the BSc traditional Chinese medicine and other degrees with a complementary medicine element “cannot really be held to be a good fit with the strategic direction of the school, and resource and energy would be better directed elsewhere”.
There are more than 70 students registered on the Chinese medicine degree course.
The university will continue to offer these subjects at postgraduate level, as short courses and as part of continuing professional development programmes. Traditional Chinese medicine work will also be linked to the university’s allied
health professions courses.”
Another report appeared in the Manchester Evening News: “Needle over acupuncture course”. “A UNIVERSITY has scrapped a course in acupuncture and aromatherapy branded `anti-science’ by critics.
Salford University said the three-year degree in traditional Chinese medicine didn’t fit with the `strategic direction’ bosses want to adopt.
The move is part of wider cuts which will see 150 teaching and support staff jobs axed.”
One of their students raised the question that the university must dread.
“First-year student Gary Leese, who is organising a petition, said: “Why did the university launch the course if they didn’t think it was good enough?”
The comments left by the readers of the Manchester Evening News were mostly very sensible. The first to come in, from someone with the beautifully Lancastrian name, Gladys Rowbotham, said “Some common sense at last!”.
A brief report appeared also in the Manchester Confidential
This is rather an interesting development. On 19th April 2007, I sent a Freedom of Information request to Salford to ask for course validation documents for their courses in Homeopathy and in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I also asked for course materials for specified courses. This request was even less successful than usual. Not only were the course materials refused (as they always are), but, unusually, the validation documents were refused too. The excuse for this was more pathetic than usual too. They claimed it would cost more than £450 to email a few documents and powerpoints, and claimed exemption under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act, “Information Reasonably Accessible to the Applicant by Other Means”, rather than the more usual excuse (Section 43, “Commercial interests”).
It was never explained what “other means” were meant to be available. Perhaps they thought I should pay £3000 in fees and enrol for the course?
On 6th April 2007, Times Higher Education (THE) ran an opinion piece “Credible endeavour or pseudoscience?“. In this, I wrote, as follows.
“Clearly the buck stops with university vice-chancellors who award the degrees. Two weeks ago, after the publication of my opinion article and a special report on university homoeopathy courses in the journal Nature , the BBC tried to get one of the vice-chancellors to defend themselves. They did not succeed. Letters to vice-chancellors on this go unanswered. Requests to see course materials have repeatedly been refused. The QAA is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Teaching materials and the names of examiners are kept secret. This I find incomprehensible and indefensible.”
After this appeared, I was sent by the University of Salford a copy of Michael Harloe’s defence of their position at that time, as sent to THE. It relied heavily on validation by the Quality Assurance Agency. But the QAA is merely a box-ticking organisation that would give top marks to a course in astrology, given a sufficient mound of paperwork, as I pointed out in Nature, “Their own rules prevent them from doing anything useful”.
The statement also said that the courses teach critical thinking about alternative medicine. But it has been pointed out over and over again that what alternative medicine advocates lack, above anything else, is any faculty of critical self-appraisal.
One has to have some sympathy with a vice chancellor who is put on the spot and forced to defend courses in which he probably does not really believe himself. Perhaps it is not surprising that letters so often go unanswered. What can they say? There really is no answer that doesn’t leave the hapless VC with egg on his face.
If there is one lesson from this, it is not to be discouraged if you get no answer from a vice-chancellor. It has probably been read and may well get acted on eventually. Shutting down a course is no easy matter. It takes time.
I said the buck stops with the vice chancellor. Professor Harloe has grasped the nettle and done the right thing. Let’s hope a few more now follow his excellent lead..
What does this mean for the Pittilo report?
The University of Central Lancashire has closed the first year entry to its “BSc” in Homeopathy, and announced a review of all its activities in the area of alternative medicine. Now we have Salford. There are stirrings among the good scientists even at the University of Westminster which has a new Dean and VC.
This rather absurd situation has arisen because of the adamant refusal of the government, and of a dozen or more quangos, to grasp the nettle of whether or not the alternative treatments work. Time and time again, the one important question that you want to know about any sort of treatment, namely, is it effective, has been pushed under the carpet.
The sort of absurd political correctness that leads to the fraudulent conjurers known as ‘psychic surgeons’ being referred to as a “profession” by the Department of Health has obscured reality. Even the MHRA was persuaded to allow misleading labelling of homeopathic and herbal “remedies”. thus betraying its job. In its own words “The MHRA is the government agency that is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work, . . .”.
There is a lesson here. You can’t go on avoiding reality for ever. One consolation is that, in the end, it is the universities who are leading the way, albeit slowly.
All we need now is for the Department of Health, the MHRA and the endless box-ticking quangos to wake up too.
Herbal medicine is, unlike homeopathy, not ridiculous, It is merely Pharmacology, as practised up to circa 1900. Whereas good trials have now shown acupuncture to be sham and homeopathy to be a placebo, there has been very little good research on herbs.
Most herbalism could fairly be described giving to sick patients an unknown dose of a substance with unknown efficacy and unknown safety.
How odd, then, to visit the Royal Society of Medicine to be greeted thus.
Just look at the words!
“Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has developed over thousands of years”
That’s partly true
“and provides a comprehensive and systematic understanding of the natural world and the treatment of the human body.”
and that is total nonsense. TCM provides no understanding and virtually none of it is known to be useful for treating anything.
|Another poster at the RSM exhibition provides some of the explanation.
What on earth, one wonders, do they mean by “making efforts to modernise TCM “? So far, the idea of modernising TCM doesn’t seem to include any great effort to find out if it works.
Much of the promotion of TCM seems to be not so much ‘ancient wisdom’, but modern nationalist propaganda by the Chinese government.
The history is fascinating, but you won’t learn it from the posters on display at the exhibition.
“The Daoguang emperor though it [acupuncture] was a barrier to medical progress and removed it from the curriculum of the Imperial Medical Institute,”
“By the start of the twentieth century, acupuncture was extinct in the West and dormant in the East. It might have fallen out of favour permanently, but it suddenly experienced a revival in 1949 as a direct result of the communist revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao Tse-tung engineered a resurgence in traditional Chinese medicine, which included not just acupuncture but also Chinese herbal medicine and other therapies ”
“His motivation was partly ideological, inasmuch as he wanted to reinforce a sense of national pride in Chinese medicine. However he was also driven by necessity. He had promised to deliver affordable healthcare .. . . ”
“Mao did not care whether traditional Chinese medicine worked, as long as he could keep the masses contented. In fact, his personal physician, Zhisui Li, wrote a memoir entitled ‘The Private Life of Chairman Mao’, in which he quoted Mao as saying”
“Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine, I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine.” “Singh & Ernst Trick or Treatmant, page 46.
Or, as put more succinctly by Shapiro
“You would never know that TCM was fashioned in the twentieth century, as we shall see, from a ragbag of therapies in post-revolutionary China.”
Why is the Royal Society of Medicine allowing such mendacious posters? As it happens, I and a friend were visiting the RSM to see their Academic Dean, with a view to finding out why the RSM had failed to take any public position on alternative medicine. The answer appeared to be money, and that was the answer to why the TCM exhibition was being held on their premises too. The Dean no more believed in TCM than we did, but, well, they need the income. He pointed out (looking suitably sheepish) that the address given for the exhibition was not the RSM, but Number 1 Wimpole Street (that, of course, is also the address of the RSM).
Ah, so that’s OK then.
It has to be said that the RSM isn’t alone in its spineless attitude. Both the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) have failed to make any clear condemnation of mystical medicine. This is in stark contrast to just about every relevant scientific society (here is a summary).
It is a mystery to me why much of medicine should still be dominated by a mindset that seems to have lagged 200 years behind every other science. Perhaps medicine is just too complicated.
UCL Hospitals’ skeleton in the cupboard
Make no mistake, University College London Hospital is top class. The UCLH Trust. runs seven hospitals All but one of them are excellent. But in 2002 the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital was acquired as part of the UCLH group, to the intense embarrassment of UCL scientists.
Let’s start with the good bit. Usually I don’t like anecdotes, so just think of this as a vote of thanks, not evidence.
A personal history of UCH
I owe UCLH a lot personally. On December 13th 1984, my wife had
a subarachnoid haemorrhage when she was seven months pregnant. After misdiagnosis at St Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey, she was moved to UCH and diagnosed very quickly. The next day she had neurosurgery to pin an aneurysm at the Maida Vale Neurosurgical Hospital, part of the UCLH group (it no longer exists). The surgeon, Alan Crockard, came out of theatre after five hours, looking rather tired and said “it was adhered to the optic chiasma on one side and about a millilmetre from the pituitary on the other. It was a bit tricky but I think we got it”.
|After a week in intensive care, under heavy sedation, Margaret’s blood pressure was not low enough and they decided to deliver the baby. At about 4 pm on a snowy Christmas Eve, a team of neurosurgeons and a team of obstetricians gathered and soon after, Andrew Stuart Colquhoun emerged in a small incubator to be whisked off in an ambulance to the Special Care Baby Unit at UCH (run, at that time, by Osmund Reynolds).. Christmas day was spent in the hospital, with Margaret’s mother. Andrew weighed 1.4 kg at birth, but by Christmas day he had pulled out his ventilator himself, and was doing fine. He was so tiny that it was a couple of days before I dared to hold him. The Unit had racks of doll-sized clothes, knitted by volunteers.||
Andrew (at 9 days) and Dad. Jan 2, 1985. Click for album..
Once Margaret was well enough, she was given a side room in a neurosurgical ward with a cot for Andrew by her bed, an arrangement that gave the neurosurgical nurses some fun. They were in UCLH continuously until 27th April before Margaret had recovered enough to go home, [Full photo album here]
Now they are both fine.and Andrew is 6′ 7″ (200.5 cm)..
It is episodes like this that make one very proud of the NHS. Heaven knows what it would have cost in the USA.
Margaret & Andrew, with carer, Anna, June 2, 1985
Andrew playing cricket in Bangladesh, Feb 2005.
But now the the less desirable side of UCLH
Herbs and homeopaths at UCLH
|Recently I was sent the UCLH Annual Review 2007 – 2008. There was a lot of good stuff in it and worth a read despite there being too much hyperbole and too many pictures of men in dark suits. But buried among all the high tech stuff, what do we find but an advertisement for 1900-style pharmacology in the form of the herbal clinic at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, accompanied by a load of utterly inaccurate information from the TV botanist, David Bellamy.
Take, for example, the claim about Devil’s Claw for osteoarthritis. Even alternative medicine advocates said “The authors concluded that there are insufficient high-quality trials to determine the safety and efficacy of Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) in the treatment of osteoarthritis, and that definitive trials are needed.”
Reading between the lines, I’d guess that the opening of this clinic has a subtext. It is well known that funding for homeopathy has dried up (partly as a result of our letter to NHS Trusts that appeared in the
There have been problems before with the herbal activities at the RLHH before (see Conflicts of Interest at the Homeopathic Hospital). It appeared that the Khans, who run the Marigold homeopathic podiatry clinic (no, seriously, it is real) were largely prescribing a herbal product that was made by their own company. without even the hospital trust, never mind the patients, being made aware of it. In normal medicine this would be regarded as a rather serious offence, but as far as I know, nothing was ever done about it.
The ethics of alternative medicine are truly one of life’s great mysteries.
Reading further in the annual review, we come to the page about the RLHH. The homeopathy side must really have run down because it seems to have diversified into selling cosmetics and groceries. That sounds like desperation.
Good heavens, they sell “chemical-free sun cream”. One wonders what it can be made of, if not chemicals. This is the language of low-grade advertising agencies, not what one expects from an NHS hospital trust.
|But next to this there is a much more interesting item. Just look at the last sentence.
I wonder if this could possibly have anything to do with the fact that Michael Baum and I visited the Trust headquarters in August 2006 to propose that the RLHH might be turned into a centre of supportive and palliative care?
It would be nice to think so. But it seems they haven’t gone nearly far enough yet. If all they do is replace the waning homeopathy
We know they are under pressure from their royal patrons, but that, in a constitutional monarchy, is simply not acceptable.
Michael Baum is a cancer surgeon who has taken a particular interest in palliative and supportive care. He is someone whose views should be taken seriously. He is also the author of the magnificent “An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong” Here is a quotation from that letter. The UCLH Trust should bear it in mind.
|The power of my authority comes with a knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. I’m sensitive to the danger of abusing this power and, as a last resort, I know that the General Medical Council (GMC) is watching over my shoulder to ensure I respect a code of conduct with a duty of care that respects patients’ dignity and privacy and reminds me that my personal beliefs should not prejudice my advice.
Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. Furthermore, your public utterances are worthy of four pages, whereas, if lucky, I might warrant one. I don’t begrudge you that authority and we probably share many opinions about art and architecture, but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies. There is no equivalent of the GMC for the monarchy, so it is left either to sensational journalism or, more rarely, to the quiet voice of loyal subjects such as myself to warn you that you may have overstepped the mark. It is in the nature of your world to be surrounded by sycophants (including members of the medical establishment hungry for their mention in the Queen’s birthday honours list) who constantly reinforce what they assume are your prejudices. Sir, they patronise you! Allow me this chastisement.
The Times today has given s good showing for my comment piece. It gives the case against following the advice of the Pittilo report. It simply makes no sense to have government regulation of acupuncture, herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine until such time as there is evidence that they work. It makes even less sense to have BSc degrees in them. The Department of Health should have more sense that to use the Prince of Wales as its scientific advisor.
Let’s hope that the recent example set by the University of Central Lancashire is the start of trend for vice-chancellors to appreciate that running such degrees brings their universities into disrepute.
I can only apologise for the dreadful title that The Times’ sub-editors put on the piece, My original title was
A bad report for the vice chancellor
The Pittilo report to the Department of Health will endanger the public and corrupt universities. There is a better way.
I like that much better than “Regulate quack nedicine? I feel sick”.
But, oh dear, the picture that I sent them is on the left, but what appeared is on the right. Spot the difference.
Well now, at least, I can feel I have something in common with Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
It so happens that Professor Pittilo wrote a letter to Times Higher Education this week. I fear that it provided a yet more evidence that he hasn’t really quite got the hang of evidence.
A reply from Professor Pittilo
This response to the op-ed of 29th August appeared as a letter
in the Times on Sept 2.
|Public health needs protection
Regulation of acupuncture and herbal medicine has been subject to much scrutiny
Sir, Professor Colquhoun’s campaign to discredit our report (“Regulate quack medicine? I feel sick,” Aug 29) is in danger of placing public health at risk. He is entitled to challenge existing evidence for the effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) but fails to acknowledge the key recommendation from the steering group on the essential need to demonstrate efficacy, safety and quality assurance as a prerequisite for NHS funding.
Professor Colquhoun dismisses CAM because of the absence of a rigorous scientific foundation and he asserts that to teach and practise it is unethical. Survey data consistently demonstrates very high demand for CAM with one report estimating that 22 million visits involving 10.6 per cent of the population in England alone occurred in 2008. This demand is one reason why his alternative model of trade law enforcement will not work. He may argue that these people are uncritical recipients of nonsense, but data from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency confirm that they are at significant risk from poor practice. It is essential that we protect the public by implementing statutory regulation alongside demanding evidence of efficacy. Professor Colquhoun’s resistance to the teaching of science to CAM practitioners will do little to help them to critically evaluate effectiveness.
Professor Michael Pittilo
Chair of the Department of Health Steering Group
And Pittilo wrote in similar vein to Times Higher Education.
Science vital to health study
28 August 2008
Your feature on some members of staff at the University of Central Lancashire attacking science degrees in complementary and alternative medicine (“Staff attack science degrees in alternative health”, 7 August) raises a number of concerns.
It is up to any university, taking account of the expert views of staff and external peer review, to determine the appropriate title and award for any degree. It is encouraging to note from the feature that new courses
The recent report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and other Traditional Medicine
There is no doubt that courses that provide a solid scientific foundation will greatly assist CAM practitioners in establishing evidence-based practice. It would be most unfortunate if the reported resistance to degree titles led to those wishing to practise acupuncture or herbal medicine receiving less hard science than they might have.
To say that acupuncture and herbal medicine degrees have no academic justification appears arrogant in the extreme. Although it is certainly true that some content may not be scientific, this does not invalidate the legitimacy of these courses at degree level, a fact borne out by their successful validation in a number of universities.
R. Michael Pittilo, Principal and vice-chancellor, The Robert Gordon University.
This one got excellent responses from Kevin Smith (University of Abertay, Dundee), and from Peter J. Brophy (Professor of veterinary anatomy and cell biology University of Edinburgh). This was my comment to THE
|There are a few very obvious responses to Professor Pittilo’s letter
For many alternative therapies the “philosophy” is simply incompatible with science. One obvious example is homeopathy. On Mondays and Wednesdays (science days) the students will be required to learn that response increases with dose. On Tuesdays and Thursdays will be taught the opposite. But for the exam they must reproduce only the latter (nonsensical) idea because their aim is to get a job as a homeopath. That makes nonsense of the idea of a university.
This seems to constitute a recognition that the evidence is still very inadequate. The time to start degrees, and the time to give official government recognition, is after the evidence is in, not before. What happens if you start degrees and then find that the subject is so much nonsense? Well, that has already happened in several areas of course. But the people who accredit the course and who act as external examiners just happen to be fervent believers in that nonsense, so all appears to be well (to bean counters anyway).
There is, as it happens, a great deal of evidence now about acupuncture, but the authors of the report do not seem to be aware of it. I recommend Barker Bausell’s book on the topic. If students are educated science, like what constitutes evidence, and our current understanding of words like “energy”, they would have to disavow the subject that there are supposed to training to practise
No, it is not a matter of arrogance, just a matter of careful attention to the evidence. Attention to evidence was notably absent in Prof Pittilo’s report, perhaps because his committee consisted entirely of people who earn their living from the subjects they were supposed to be assessing.
I have had the misfortune to have waded through a mound of such validation documents. The one thing they never consider is whether the treatment works. Sad to say, these validations are not worth the paper they are written on.
The first major victory in the battle for the integrity of universities seems to have been won. This email was sent by Kate Chatfield who is module leader for the “BSc” in homeopathic medicine at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).
|from Kate Chatfield…
It’s a sad day for us here at UCLan because we have taken the decision not to run a first year this year due to low recruitment. The course will be put ‘on hold’ for this year and next until we see what happens with the general climate. Fortunately our masters course is thriving and we have been asked to focus upon this area and homeopathy research for the time being.
Of late UCLan has been the subject of many attacks by the anti-homeopathy league. Colquhoun et al have kept the university lawyers and us quite fruitlessly busy by making claims for very detailed course information under the Freedom of Information Act. The latest demand is for 32 identified lesson plans with teaching notes, power points, handouts etc. The relentless attacks have taken their toll and it appears that they have won this small victory.
The university has been very clear that this decision has been taken solely on the grounds of poor educational experience and is nothing to do with the current furore. They continue to be supportive of us and our efforts.
Kate and Jean
There is some background here. In July 2006 I made a request to UCLAN under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in which I asked to see some of their teaching materials. I appealed to UCLAN but Professor Patrick McGhee, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), also turned down two appeals. A letter sent directly to Professor Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor and president of UCLAN, failed to elicit the courtesy of a reply (standard practice I’m afraid, when a vice chancellor is faced with a difficult question). (Ironically, McVicar lists one of his interests as “health policy”.) So then I appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner, in November 2006. Recently the case got to the top of the pile, and a judgment is expected any moment now.
Kate Chatfield’s letter to her colleagues is interesting. She describes a request ro see some of her teaching materials as an “attack”. If someone asks to see my teaching materials, I am rather flattered, and I send them. Is she not proud of what she teaches? Why all the secrecy? After all, you, the taxpayer, are paying for this stuff to be taught, so why should you not be able see it? Or is the problem that she feels that the “alternative reality” in which homeopaths live is just too complicated for mortals to grasp? Perhaps this attitude should be interpreted as flattering to the general public, because somewhere deep down she knows that the public will be able to spot gobbledygook when they see it. The revelation that the University of Westminster teaches first year undergraduates the “amethysts emit high yin energy” didn’t help their academic reputation much either.
Much credit for this decision must go also to the pressure from the many good academics at UCLAN. When it was revealed recently that UCLAN intended to open yet more courses in forms of medicine that are disproved or unproven, they naturally felt that their university was being brought into disrepute. Opposition to plans to introduce new “degrees” in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine were exposed in Times Higher Education recently. It particular, great credit must go to Dr Michael Eslea from UCLAN’s Psychology department. His open letter to his vice-chancellor is an example of scientific integrity in action.
The abandonment of this degree in medicines that contain no medicine is a small victory for common sense, for science and for the integrity of universities. Sadly, there is still a long way to go.
It is my understanding that ‘bringing the university into disrepute’ is a serious offence. Please note, vice-chancellor.
A few more judgments like that to suspend your homeopathy degree could work wonders for your reputation.
Watch this space.
The Guardian was quick off the mark -this story appeared on their education web site within 3 hours of my posting it “Homeopathy degrees suspended after criticism” by Anthea Lipsett. My comment there disappeared for a while because the Guardian legal people misunderstood the meaning of the last sentence. It’s back now, with blame allocated unambiguously to the vice-chancellors of the 16 or so universities who run this sort of course.
UCLAN’s web site seems to need some updating. The “BSc” in homeopathic medicine is still advertised there. as of 28 August.
UCLAN’s best ally. Dr Michael Eslea, has had some publicity for his attempts to rescue his university’s reputation. The story appeared in the “High Principals” column of Private Eye (Issue 1217, Aug 22, 2008). It also appeared in his local paper, the Lancashire Evening Post.
The Lancashire Evening Post catches up with homeopathy suspension story, two days after you read it here. But the UCLAN web site still advertises it.