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On Monday 5 Feb 2007, the BBC ran a piece entirled Alternative therapy put on trial. It started

“An experiment in allowing NHS patients easier access to alternative and complementary therapies has been launched by NI Secretary Peter Hain.”

But it is NOT a trial, and NOT an experiment. Journalists seem incapable
of understanding the meaning of these words, and the result is irresponsible
reports (though one might detect a hint of irony in the picture that the
BBC used to illustrate acupuncture; right).

There is nothing new in the failure of journalists to distinguish good science from junk. We saw this very clearly in the case of the phoney fish oil “trials” going on in Durham (see Ben Goldacre’s account of these).

In the case of Durham the effect is to use public money to produce bad evidencethat can be used to promote the dubious claims of a private company, in the case “Eye Q” pills made by Equazen.
In the case of Northern Ireland, £200,000 of taxpayers’ money will be paid to a private company, GetwellUK, GPs in two areas will be able to refer patients for therapies like acupuncture, homeopathy and massage. Nothing there about seeing whether the treatments work! But Peter Hain seems to think he knows the answer already. He said

“I am certain, as a user of complementary medicine myself, that this has the potential to improve health substantially,”

He was “delighted that Northern Ireland is leading the way in integrating complementary and alternative therapies into the National Health Service”

Peter Hain used to be something of a hero to me. In the 70s his work for the Anti-apartheid movement was an inspiration (see his autobiographical notes). Now he has sunk to promoting junk science. Very sad.So what is Hain’s attitude to alternative medicine, and how did he come to ally himself with the batty medical opinions of the Prince of Wales? On his web site he had a section on this topic. For some reason it has now been deleted, but thanks (again) to Google’s cache, here is a quotation from a speech he made to The Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Health (12th October 2005).

“Our first baby, Sam, was born with eczema. Later, he developed asthma too. At first, we relied on conventional treatments. Various creams were prescribed, and a steroidal spray. But they didn’t work. In fact, the spray seemed to make him more dependent.

Peter Hain now
Peter Hain in 1970

So instead, we turned to complementary medicine. And with the help of homeopathy and tight restrictions on the sort of food that our son could eat – avoiding in particular wheat and milk products- both ailments went away.”

Hang on! You changed diet and gave homeopathic sugar pills. And that is a reason for the taxpayer to fund homeopathy? Any fool can see that this anecdote means that either (a) change in diet helped, (b) homeopathy helped, or (c) the eczema would have got better anyway. According to the National Eczema Society, “60-70% of children are virtually clear of the condition by the time they reach their mid-teens”. They “grow out” of it. Evidently a First Class Honours Degree in Economics and Political Science is not enough to teach Peter Hain what constitutes evidence and what does not.

On the other hand, the in the same speech Peter Hain also said

“I would certainly never advocate the squandering of public money on so called treatments that have no proven benefits and which take money away from existing therapies that are shown to work.”

But they have “no proven benefits”. Just how inconsistent can you get?

Who are GetwellUK?

GetwellUK is a private company financed largely by taxpayers’ money. And guess who supports it? The Prince of Quacks, once again exerting his unconstitutional influence on public policy. This is done partly through yet another of the Prince’s lobby groups, “GP Associates” (report in BMJ). It seems that “GP Associates” was the forerunner of the recently-launched “Integrated Health Associates”. The inaugural meeting of Integrated Health Associates” was sponsored by a drug company, Solgar Vitamins, a purveyor of unnecessary ‘supplements’ that is a trading arm of Boots Herbal Stores (no connection with that other well-known purveyor of misleading information, Boots the Chemists).

The Company says Support came from the government in February 2005 when the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department of Health, Melanie Johnson, said in the House of Commons, “I thank the hon. Gentleman for notice of the question in relation to Get Well UK. We understand the benefit that many people get from complementary therapies. Local commissioning is a matter for local discretion, but we can see the benefits to local practices of an intermediary pulling together a range of services in the area for alternative medical treatments.” [Hansard].

“We were delighted to be selected as one of the first investees of Futurebuilders – a Treasury fund established to assist capacity building in community organisations who deliver public sector services. The investment will help Get Well UK to serve more NHS patients.”

Prince of Wales with Boo Armstrong (Managing director of Getwell UK)

GetWellUK publish an evaluation of a “pilot project” in London, “Does it Work?”, by Nicola Robinson (Head of the Centre for Complementary Healthcare & Integrated Medicine,Thames Valley University).
The report tells us nothing whatsoever about the effectiveness of the treatments, because the “pilot” study was not designed to do so. It is 40 pages of waffle.

The report also says “Get Well UK is a not for profit organisation established in response to a recommendation by the House of Lords in 2000 that complementary therapies should be made available through the NHS. This is a gross misrepresentation of the House of Lords report which said this should be done ONLY if the treatments worked better than placebo. And, with very few exceptions, that still remains to be shown.

For their efforts in setting back medicine to the 19th century, they have had money from UnLtd Ventures (“provides consultancy support to a number of outstanding social entrepreneurs” and taxpayers’ money from Futurebuilders. And they are getting £200 000 of taxpayers’ money from Paul Goggins, the Northern Ireland Health Secretary

At the end of the “pilot scheme” there will have been no proper assessment of the effectiveness of the treatments. We shall be none the wiser.

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20 Responses to Peter Hain and GetwellUK: pseudoscience and privatisation in Northern Ireland

  • […] astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated […]

  • Mojo says:

    It’s going to be on BBC One NI this evening:


  • Deetee says:

    “Also featured in the programme is former nurse Marie Vaughan. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she turned down chemotherapy in favour of alternative therapies.

    She now consumes high levels of vitamins and minerals and hopes they will stop her cancer returning. ”

    I have already writtent to “Get Well” to voice my concern about their website, but this really is the final straw.

    (Is this available on iplayer?)

  • Yes it is on iPlayer, but it defeats my capture system so I haven’t got a copy, Neither was I able to download it, that would give 30 days so if someone can download it and send it to me that would be great.

    I doubt there is much point in complaining to GetWell. I’ve sent a formal complaint to the BBC on the grounds of gross imbalance, It was essentially an advertorial for a private compnay.

  • lecanardnoir says:

    This exposes the lie that is at the heart of ‘integrative medicine’ as espoused by Prince Charles and GetWell. It is a backdoor to sneak alternative medicine into the NHS. And I would agree with DeeTee, it is criminal and utterly morally corrupt.

  • ChristineSW15 says:

    I would like to ask; where is the proof that complementary medicines do not work? The onus seems to be on finding the proof that they work, but the funding to do so is simply not available. Should a therapy that has been shown to work be pilloried and written off as a placebo simply because science has yet to find the answer? If you have all the answers then please share them, but if you do not I rather think it is utterly morally corrupt to deny something that assists others simply because it is not fully understood.

  • Thanks for your questions. I think they are quite easy to answer.

    I agree that it would be “morally corrupt to deny something that assists others”. I hope that you would agree that it would be morally corrupt to offer for sale things that don’t work.

    Firstly your question rather misunderstands the scientific process. It is simply not possible to prove that something doesn’t work. All you can do is to propose a hypothesis and then try to do experiments that falsify it. If your hypothesis passes the test, then it can, for the time being be accepted. But it up to the person who proposes the hypothesis to do the testing. It would not be reasonable to expect others to drop everything and start to test your hypothesis for you, hypotheses are two-a-penny and of course most turn out to be wrong.

    It seems to me to be quite right and proper that if you propose a method for treating people who are ill, the onus should be on you to show that it has benefits.

    It isn’t hard to imagine the chaos that would reign if you believed any old hypothesis that was proposed until such time as it was shown to be falsified? The mind truly boggles.

    You raise the standard grumble that “funds are not available” for research. Perhaps you should ask yourself why companies like Boiron, with a turnover Boiron makes a profit of of about 20 million euros a year, on net operating revenues of about 300 million euros. It is a very big business. Why then does it not give money to do serious tests on its homeopathic products? The only reason that I can think of is that, deep down, they suspect the tests would be failed.

    I think you are also wrong to suggest that anything is rejected “simply because it is not fully understood”. When the wonderful effects of penicillin were first discovered, nobody had the slightest idea how it worked. That is the norm, not the exception.

    Although I think it is quite right that the onus should be on the proposer to test the hypothesis, they often get financial help. The National Institutes of Health in the USA has spent almost a billion dollars testing alternative “remedies” and, as far as I know, all that money has not shown any of them to be effective (apart perhaps from a handful of herbal things) that. They have shown though, that quite a lot of things don’t work. In particular, huge surveys on nutritional “supplements” have failed to show that they have useful effects (and may even do harm).

    There have also been a few really good trials of homeopathy that show, as expected, that it is indistinguishable from placebo. There have also been many excellent experimental tests of acupuncture. In both of these cases the tests you ask for have been done, and in both cases they have failed.

    The major unknown is in herbal medicines. the vast majority of them have never been tested properly for either safety or efficacy. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that most herbal medicine consists of giving to sick people an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety.

    I do hope you aren’t saying that it is the responsibility of the taxpayer to test every herb that is on sale in your local Chinese medicine shop.

  • ChristineSW15 says:

    I do accept your points about hypothesis, proposers and funding etc. However I feel that to single out complementary medicines and label their use in the NHS as criminal is taking a narrow view.

    To tie in with your point about why companies such as Boiron do not invest in homeopathic research I believe that for them to do so would not necessarily be considering the interests of their shareholders. It could be considered killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

    A homeopathic remedy is not expensive and after a few seasons of using a remedy one can be completely free of hayfever. Even if it does not work for everyone it is still more economically viable than everyone with the condition using anti-histamine year in, year out.

    Whilst I may have had extremely damaging side-effects from the products of a pharmaceutical company I would not suggest that they be outlawed. There may be positive effects for others and who am I to suggest they should be denied?

    We should all take a balanced view with an understanding that as we are all different what may be wrong for one person may be right for another.

  • Well ChristineSW15, it seems that we have some agreement. You say

    “. . . why companies such as Boiron do not invest in homeopathic research I believe that for them to do so would not necessarily be considering the interests of their shareholders. It could be considered killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

    You seem to be saying that if they did the tests, they would fail. I agree. But how then can you simultaneously assert that it works and that more trials should be done?

  • […] to persuade me that the ‘audit’ of the effects of Pater Hain’s infliction of privatised alternative medicine in Northern Ireland would tell us something useful.Of course it won’t provide any useful […]

  • ChristineSW15 says:

    No! Sorry I did not make it clear. Regarding Geese and golden eggs… What I meant is that if you have a product that makes you £100 you are not going to spend money researching something that would result in the first product nolonger being sold and you only making £10 from the product you have just researched!

  • andrew says:

    ChristineSW15 I’m glad you agree with the points about hypothesis. Once you understand and accept the scientific method nearly all of the other views of science on the site follow on logically.
    your point about Boiron not funding research into homeopathy is actually very good. Directors of British companies have a duty under the Companies Acts at law to manage the company well for the benefit of the shareholders. My guess is producing research that shows the company’s products are tosh would give them – the directors – a problem! I’m not sure where Borion are registered, but I expect they would face the same difficulty.

  • […] while people will remember Tony Blair on faith schools, they may not recall Peter Hain on Alt Med or Ken Livingstone on MMR. There’s also Nadine Dorries and David Tredinnick. Politicians are […]

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Blue_Wode: FIH newbie Boo Armstrong 2 gv talk organised by Uni of Westminster Soc. 4 Int. Health on 5/11 http://bit.ly/nEwEy Hmm… http://bit.ly/JkFQm

  • […] probably remember Tony Blair’s stance on faith schools, they may not recall Peter Hain on Alt Med or Ken Livingstone on MMR. There’s also Nadine Dorries and David Tredinnick. Recently, there was […]

  • […] tremendous pressure on this sector.  Once Boo Armstrong and alternative medicine had the ear of Peter Hain, a former government minister of some considerable standing, now they have the ear of David […]

  • […] Boo Armstrong, “Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and Founder and Executive Director GetWellUK”. The web site is out of date since the Prince’s Foundation shut its doors a year ago. She runs a private company, GetWellUK, that was responsible for a very poor study of alternative medicine in Northern Ireland. So she has a vested interest in promoting it. See Peter Hain and GetwellUK: pseudoscience and privatisation in Northern Ireland […]

  • […] allowing the BHA to sidestep the advertising guidelines. Hain let £200,000 to be spent on a badly designed and badly reported trial allowing GPs to refer patients for acupuncture, homeopathy and massage […]

  • […] astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated […]

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