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Systematic Review claims acupuncture as effective as antidepressants: Part 1: Checking the past literature

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A recent systematic review in PLOS One raised the question whether acupuncture and other alternative therapies are as effective as antidepressants and psychotherapy for depression. The authors concluded

 differences were not seen with psychotherapy compared to antidepressants, alternative therapies [and notably acupuncture] or active intervention controls

or put it differently,

antidepressants alone and psychotherapy alone are not significantly different from alternative therapies or active controls.

There are clear messages here. To consumers: Why take antidepressants with their long delay and uncertainty in showing any benefits–but immediate side effects and potential risks–when a few sessions of acupuncture work just as well? To promoters of acupuncture and alternative therapies: you can now cite an authoritative review in the peer-reviewed PLOS One as scientific evidence that your treatments is as effective as scary antidepressants and time-consuming psychotherapy when you make appeals to consumers and to third-party payers.

The systematic review had five co-authors, of whom three have been involved in previous meta-analyses of the efficacy of antidepressants. However, fourth author Irving Kirsch will undoubtedly be the author most recognizable to consumers and policymakers, largely because his relentless media campaign claiming antidepressants are essentially worthless, no better than placebo. For instance, in an interview with CBS 60 Minutes Irving Kirsch: The difference between the effect of a placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most people.

Irving Kirsch: The difference between the effect of a placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most people.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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SCAMlandia

I quite like Portlandia. I find it funny and it captures a part of Portland. I recognize large swaths of the city’s culture in the show. Other representations of the city I recognize less. Sunset publishes beautiful photographs of the NW, but when I look at the photos I think, that section of the city never looks that good. It is quite wonderful how Photoshop can improve on reality.

Like most major cities, Portland has a monthly magazine, Portland Monthly. The city represented in that magazine is mostly alien to me. I look at the advertisement, the articles, the photographs, and wonder when did Portland become a city with an average 7 figure income? The Portland in which I grew up and currently live is rarely found in the pages of Portland Monthly. If you are extremely well to do, I suppose you are in the demographic Portland Monthly. But when I flip through the pages of the magazine, I see little I recognize, but I have never completely abandoned the hippie/grunge aesthetic of my younger days.

Every January they have the best Doctors issue* and this year, for the first time, they offer The Portland Alternative Medicine Guide. Well, less a guide and more an extended infomercial filled with ‘facts’ that deserve the quotes. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Dentistry, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Alternative Arthritis Treatments

A recent report commissioned by Arthritis Research UK reviewed 25 so-called “alternative” therapies for arthritis. They found, not surprisingly that there is little evidence to support most the studied treatments.

“There’s either no evidence that they’re effective or there’s some evidence that they are not effective.

Says lead author, Dr Gareth Jones.  It is important to note that we are not just talking about that these treatments are poorly studies, but also that to the extent they are studied the evidence is mixed or shows lack of efficacy.

I want to discuss, however, the exceptions – the treatment the report found were effective. They include acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, and massage.  Tai chi and yoga are basically forms of exercise and stretching, so it is not surprising that they are helpful in treating musculoskeletal disorders. It is deceptive, in my opinion, to even consider them “alternative” and lump them into the same artificial category as copper bracelets and magnet therapy. Exercise is not alternative – it is a very basic form of science-based activity for health, conditioning, and for musculoskeletal symptoms. The same is essentially true for massage, which is known to relax muscles (at least temporarily). Relaxation therapy should also not be considered “alternative” and existed long before this category was invented.

The only item on the list of treatment modalities that the report concluded showed some efficacy that is reasonably defined as “alternative” was acupuncture. This claim caught my attention because other reviews of the literature indicate that acupuncture is not effective for arthritis (or anything else). The report itself is not published in a peer-reviewed journal (at least not yet), but the lead author, Gareth Jones, has published prior systematic reviews.

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Posted in: Acupuncture

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Journal of Clinical Oncology editorial: “Compelling” evidence acupuncture “may be” effective for cancer related fatigue

Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) is a high impact journal (JIF > 16)  that advertises itself as a “must read” for oncologists. Some cutting edge RCTs evaluating chemo and hormonal therapies have appeared there. But a past blog post gave dramatic examples of pseudoscience and plain nonsense to be found in JCO concerning psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and, increasingly, integrative medicine and even integrations of integrative medicine and PNI. The prestige of JCO has made it a major focus for efforts to secure respectability and third-party payments for CAM treatments by promoting their scientific status and effectiveness.

Once articles are published in JCO, authors can escape critical commentary by simply refusing to respond, taking advantage of an editorial policy that requires a response in order for critical commentaries to be published. An author’s refusal to respond means criticism cannot be published.

Some of the most outrageous incursions of woo science into JCO are accompanied by editorials that enjoy further relaxation of any editorial restraint  and peer review. Accompanying editorials are a form of privileged access publishing, often written by reviewers who have strongly recommended the article for publication, and having their own PNI and CAM studies to promote with citation in JCO.

Because of strict space limitations, controversial statements can simply be declared, rather than elaborated in arguments in which holes could be poked. A faux authority is created. Once claims make it into JCO, their sources are forgotten and only the appearance a “must read,” high impact journal is remembered. A shoddy form of scholarship becomes possible in which JCO can be cited for statements that would be recognized as ridiculous if accompanied by a citation of the origin in a CAM journal. And what readers track down and examine original sources for numbered citations, anyway?
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Obamacare and CAM III: Great Expectations

In a previous post, we looked at how so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (or “CAM”) might fit into the definition of “essential health benefits,” which must be covered by insurers pursuant to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare,” or the “ACA”). In another, we contemplated what it might mean for insurers to “discriminate” against CAM providers, which is prohibited by the ACA. In both posts, the conclusion reached was that these provisions of Obamacare might not incorporate CAM practices into health care at the level CAM providers were hoping for. Here again we examine how the great expectations of CAM promoters may not be met in health care reform.

This time, we take a look at some additional provisions of the ACA that CAM lobbyists and their friends in Congress managed to insert into the healthcare overhaul. Of course, whether the ACA is around for much longer will depend on the outcome of the November elections, although Gov. Romney’s promise to “repeal Obamacare” if elected president will happen only if his party wins a majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate.  (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Chinese Systematic Reviews of Acupuncture

I’ll begin with the possibly shocking admission that I’m a strong supporter of the collection of ideas and techniques known as evidence-based medicine (EBM). I’m even the current President of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association (EBVMA). This may seem a bit heretical in this context, since EBM  takes a lot of heat in this blog. But as Dr. Atwood has said, “we at SBM are in total agreement…that EBM “should not be without consideration of prior probability, laws of physics, or plain common sense,” and that SBM and EBM should not only be mutually inclusive, they should be synonymous.” So I have hope that by emphasizing the distinction between SBM and EBM and the limitations of EBM, we can engender the kind of changes in approach needed to address those limitations and eliminate the need for the distinction. One way of doing this is to critically evaluate the misuses of EBM in support of alternative therapies.

One of the highest levels of evidence in the hierarchy of evidence-based medicine is the systematic review. Unlike narrative reviews, in which an author selects those studies they consider relevant and then summarizes what they think the studies mean, which is a process subject to a high risk of bias, a systematic review identifies randomized controlled clinical trials according to an explicit and objective set of criteria established ahead of time. Predetermined criteria are also used to grade the studies evaluated by quality so any relationship between how well studies are conducted and the results can be identified. Done well, a systematic review gives a good sense of the balance of the evidence for a specific medical question.

Unfortunately, poorly done systematic reviews can create an strong but inaccurate impression that there is high-level, high-quality evidence in favor of a hypothesis when there really isn’t. Reviews of acupuncture research illustrate this quite well.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials

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Don’t call CAM “cost-effective” unless it’s actually effective

Your health insurance plan probably covers anti-inflammatory drugs. But does it cover acupuncture treatments? Should it? Which health services deliver good value for money? Lest you think the debate is limited to the United States (which is an outlier when it comes to health spending), even countries with publicly-run healthcare systems are scrutinizing spending. Devoting dollars to one area (say, hospitals) is effectively a decision not to spend on something else, (perhaps public health programs). All systems, be they public or private, allocate funds in ways to spend money in the most efficient way possible. Thoughtful decisions require a consideration of both benefits and costs.

One of the consistent positions put forward by contributors to this blog is that all health interventions should be evaluated based on the same evidence standard. From this perspective, there is no distinct basket of products and services which are labelled “alternative”, “complementary” or more recently “integrative”. There are only treatments and interventions which have been evaluated to be effective, and those that have not. The idea that these two categories should both be considered valid approaches is a testament to promoters of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), who, unable to meet the scientific standard, have argued (largely successfully) for different standards and special consideration — be it product regulation (e.g., supplements) or practitioner regulation.

Yet promoters of CAM seek the imprimatur of legitimacy conferred by the tools of science. And in an environment of economic restraint in health spending, they further recognize that showing economic value of CAM is important. Consequently they use the tools of economics to argue a perspective, rather than answer a question. And that’s the case with a recent paper I noticed was being touted by alternative medicine practitioners. Entitled, Are complementary therapies and integrative care cost-effective? A systematic review of economic evaluations, it attempts to summarize economic evaluations conducted on CAM treatments. Why a systematic review? One of the more effective tools for evaluating health outcomes, a systematic review seeks to analyze all published (and unpublished) information on a focused question, using a standardized, transparent approach to evidence analysis. When done well, systematic reviews can sift through thousands of clinical trials to answer focused questions in ways that are less biased than cherry-picking individual studies. The Cochrane Review’s systematic reviews form one of the more respected sources of objective information (with some caveats) on the efficacy of different health interventions. So there’s been interest in applying the techniques of systematic reviews to questions of economics, where both costs and effects must be measured. Economic evaluations at their core seek to measure the “bang for the buck” of different health interventions. The most accurate economic analyses are built into prospective clinical trials. These studies collect real-world costs and patient consequences, and then allow an accurate evaluation of value-for-money. These types of analyses are rare, however. Most economic evaluations involve modelling (a little to a lot) where health effects and related costs are estimated, to arrive at a calculation of value. Then there’s a discussion of whether that value calculation is “cost-effective”. It’s little wonder that many health professionals look suspiciously at economic analyses: the models are complicated and involve so many variables with subjective inputs that it can be difficult to sort out what the real effects are. Not surprisingly, most economic analyses suggest treatments are cost-effective. Before diving into the study, let’s consider the approach:

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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I Never Meta Analysis I Really Like

David Gorski recently pointed out that Science Based Medicine is going on five years. Amazing. That there would be so much to write about day after day comes as a surprise to me. Somehow I vaguely thought that ‘controversies’ would be resolved. Pick a SCAM, contrast the SCAM with reality as best we understand it, and, once the SCAM was found wanting, it would be abandoned. Why would rational, thoughtful people persist in the pursuit of irrational behavior, contradicted by the universe?

Ha. More the fool me. I would never have guessed that these SCAMs are harder to kill than Dracula (at least one version of Dracula). Stake them and back they come*.

I have tried to avoid repeating repeating information found in prior posts by myself and others, in part because I am lazy and in part because, well, I have said it before. Just look it up. I have come to realize (all too slowly) that each blog entry should be  self contained and that much of the old material is lost in the corn maze (an punning homophone) that is WordPress. Reading my second favorite computer reinforces the realization that each post often needs to be an island universe, complete in itself.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Obamacare and CAM II: Discrimination (or not) against CAM

Supporters of science-based medicine have expressed concern over this provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare,” or the “ACA.”):

SEC. 2706. NON-DISCRIMINATION IN HEALTH CARE.

(a) PROVIDERS.—A group health plan and a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage shall not discriminate with respect to participation under the plan or coverage against any health care provider who is acting within the scope of that provider’s license or certification under applicable State law. This section shall not require that a group health plan or health insurance issuer contract with any health care provider willing to abide by the terms and conditions for participation established by the plan or issuer. Nothing in this section shall be construed as preventing a group health plan, a health insurance issuer, or the Secretary from establishing varying reimbursement rates based on quality or performance measures.

Section 2706 (now codified as 42 U.S.C. Sec. 300gg-5) goes into effect in 2014 and covers virtually all individual and group insurance market policies, although it is not clear whether it will apply to existing policies “grandfathered” in 2010 by the ACA.

Section 2706 was not part of the U.S House of Representatives version of the ACA but was included in the Senate version (which ultimately passed) under the guidance of (surprise!) Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). It was heavily lobbied by the American Chiropractic Association and other “CAM” providers, as well as some “conventional” providers like nurse anesthetists and optometrists. The legislative history (reports, committee minutes, floor debates and the like which precede a vote on a bill) indicates it was specifically included to prevent discrimination against CAM providers.  This is of obvious concern to anyone who supports science-based, or for that matter evidence-based, medicine, as there is nothing to indicate that scientific plausibility or evidence (or the lack thereof) actually affects CAM practices. It should also concern insurers and those who pay for insurance (employers and individuals) to the extent it might require payment for CAM treatments, as ineffective treatments will negatively affect their bottom line. The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Labor and the Treasury Department, which are charged with issuing regulations implementing the ACA, have not yet promulgated regulations for Section 2706. The American Medical Association House of Delegates has already passed a resolution seeking its repeal.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Can we finally just say that acupuncture is nothing more than an elaborate placebo?

I realize that Steve blogged about this study earlier in the week, but since I also commented on this particular study as my not-so-super-secret alter ego, I figured it rated a place on SBM as well. I emphasized different aspects of the study and tried to quantify exactly why, under even the most charitable interpretation of the study possible, the effects are not clinically significant. Besides, if the level of comments and e-mails is any indication, there is sufficient interest in this particular study to rate a second post.

Not suprisingly, this study is about about acupuncture. Well, it’s not exactly a study, it’s a meta-analysis that aggregates a whole lot of acupuncture studies in which this most popular of woos is administered to patients with chronic pain from a variety of causes. It’s also being promoted all over the place with painfully credulous headlines like:
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