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Homeopathy and Plausibility

The fundamental concept of science-based medicine (SBM) is that medical practice should be based upon the best available science. This may seem obvious, but there are many important details to its application, such as the relationship between clinical and basic science. Clinical claims require clinical evidence, but clinical evidence can be tricky and is often preliminary. It is therefore helpful (I would say essential) to view the clinical evidence in light of all of the rest of science.

A thorough basic and clinical science analysis of a medical claim can be summarized by the term “plausibility,” or “prior probability” if you want to put it into statistical terms. When we say a certain belief is plausible we mean it is consistent with what we know from the rest of science. In other words, because of the many weaknesses of clinical evidence, in order for a therapy to be generally accepted as part of SBM it should have a certain minimal supporting clinical evidence and overall scientific plausibility.

These can exist in different proportions – for example one therapy may be highly plausible (it would be shocking if it were not true) and have modest supporting clinical evidence, while another may have unknown plausibility but with solid clinical evidence of efficacy. But no therapy should have clinical evidence that suggests lack of efficacy, nor extreme implausibility (not just an unknown mechanism, but no possible mechanism).

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The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s muddled draft policy on “non-allopathic” medicine

Detroit is my hometown, and three and a half years ago, after nearly twenty years away wandering between residency, graduate school, fellowship, and my first academic job, I found myself back in Detroit minted as surgical faculty at Wayne State University and practicing and doing research at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. One thing that I had forgotten about while I was away for so many years is just how intimately southeast Michigan interacts with Canada. This closeness is not surprising, given that Detroit and Windsor are separated by only about a half mile of Detroit River. Indeed, a there are a lot of Canadians who cross the border on a daily basis to work in the Detroit area, many of them in the medical center within which my cancer center is located. The reason I point this out is not to wax nostalgic for trips to Windsor or for the occasional trip to Stratford to see plays but to point out that Ontario is right next to us. What happens there is of concern to me because I know quite a few people who live there and because it can on occasion influence what goes on over here on the U.S. side of the border.

I recently learned that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has been working on updating its policy on the use of nonconventional medical therapies. The wag in me can’t help but wonder why such a policy would need to say anything other than that, if it isn’t science- and evidence-based, the CPSO doesn’t support using it, but in a less sarcastic moment I realized that such a policy is probably not that bad an idea, as long as it doesn’t legitimize pseudoscience, which is, of course, the biggest pitfall to be avoided when writing such a policy. Not too long ago, the CPSO released its draft policy and has asked for public comments, with the deadline being September 1. I was happy to learn that I had not missed the deadline, because there is much to comment about regarding this policy, but it’s definitely true that time’s short. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so happy when I read the title of the draft policy, namely Non-Allopathic (Non-Conventional) Therapies in Medical Practice, with a subtitle of “Formerly named Complementary Medicine.” The full policy in PDF form can be found at this link.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Homeopathic Thuggery

There have been many cases now of big companies or organizations, or wealthy individuals, threatening to sue or actually suing a blogger for libel. The most famous case is that of Simon Singh who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association over comments he made in an article. Simon braved through the expensive and exhaustive legal process (which is especially onerous in England), but he is not just a lone blogger. He is a successful author and was writing for the Guardian. Eventually the BCA was forced to drop the case – but only after the blogging community rallied behind Simon, magnifying his criticisms of the BCA by orders of magnitude. By all accounts it was a PR disaster.

The blogging community as a whole is rather passionate about this issue. We exist on the premise of free and open public discourse about important issues. At SBM we take on many controversial issues and we don’t pull our punches when criticizing what we see as pseudoscience in medicine. So of course we take notice when a large company tries to bully a blogger to silence their legitimate criticism.

According to the BMJ this has happened yet again – this time the international homeopathy producer, Boiron, is threatening a lone Italian blogger because he dared to criticize their product, Oscillococcinum. The blogger, Samuele Riva, wrote two articles on his blog, blogzero.it, criticizing what our own Mark Crislip has called “oh-so-silly-coccinum.”  The blog is entirely in Italian, but he is maintaining a page in English with updates on the Boiron vs Blogzero affair.

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“Integrative medicine”: A brand, not a specialty

Author’s note: This post was inspired in part by a post by Wally Sampson entitled Why would medical schools associate with quackery? Or, How we did it.

PRELUDE

Once upon a time, there was quackery.

Long ago, back in the mists of time before many of our current readers were even born and far back in the memory of even our wizened elders of medicine, “quackery” was the preferred term used to refer to ineffective and potentially harmful medical practices not supported by evidence. Physicians, having a grounding in science and prior plausibility, for the most part understood that modalities such as homeopathy, reflexology, and various “energy healing” (i.e., faith healing) methodologies were based either on prescientific vitalism, magical thinking, and/or science that was at best incorrect or at the very least grossly distorted. More importantly, physicians weren’t afraid to call quackery quackery, quacks quacks, and charlatans charlatans.

Not surprisingly, quacks and charlatans did not like this.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine

Background

This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word ”doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Electrodermal Testing Part I: Fooling Patients with a Computerized Magic Eight Ball

Remember the Magic Eight Ball toy? You could ask it a question and shake it and a random answer would float up into a window: yes, no, maybe, definitely, etc. There is even a website where you can ask an Eight Ball questions online.

I have been meaning to write about bogus electrodiagnostic machines for a long time. These devices supposedly diagnose diseases and/or energy imbalances, indicate which remedies will correct the problem(s), and sometimes even treat the imbalances by transmitting a balancing frequency to the patient. I knew they were bogus, but I had never really realized the full extent of the deception until I viewed a set of training videos recently sent to me by a correspondent. I had never realized how similar electrodermal testing was to the Magic Eight Ball. I was further amazed at how they managed to combine every kind of alternative medicine into one incoherent package and to bamboozle patients with an appalling display of pseudoscientific babble.

This will be a two-part series. In the first, I will describe what the machines and their operators do. In the second (next week), I will address the legal and regulatory issues.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy

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Update on Josephine Briggs and the NCCAM

Dr. Gorski is in the throes of grant-writing, so I’m filling in for him today by following up on a topic introduced a few months ago. It involves a key medical player in the U.S. government: Dr. Josephine Briggs, Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Background

Steve Novella and I first encountered Dr. Briggs at the 2nd Yale Research Symposium on Complementary and Integrative Medicine in March, 2010. I reported here that she seemed well-meaning and pro-science but that she also seemed naive to the political realities of her office and to much of the content of “CAM” (as illustrated by her recommending the NCCAM website, which is full of misinformation; previously I’d noticed her unfortunate innocence of “acupuncture anesthesia,” which is to be expected of most academics but not of the CAM Explicator-in-Chief).

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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“CAM” Education in Medical Schools—A Critical Opportunity Missed

Mea culpa to the max. I completely forgot that today is my day to post on SBM, so I’m going to have to cheat a little. Here is a link to a recent article by yours truly that appeared on Virtual Mentor, an online ethics journal published by the AMA with major input from medical students. Note that I didn’t write the initial scenario; that was provided to me for my comments. The contents for the entire issue, titled “Complementary and Alternative Therapies—Medicine’s Response,” are here. Check out some of the other contributors (I was unaware of who they would be when I agreed to write my piece).

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Placebos as Medicine: The Ethics of Homeopathy

Is it ever ethical to provide a placebo treatment? What about when that placebo is homeopathy? Last month I blogged about the frequency of placebo prescribing by physicians.  I admitted my personal discomfort, stating I’d refuse to dispense any prescription that would require me to deceive the patient. The discussion continued in the comments, where opinions seemed to range from (I’m paraphrasing)  “autonomy, shmatonomy, placebos works” to the more critical who likened placebo use to “treating adults like children.”  Harriet Hall noted,  “We should have rules but we should be willing to break them when it would be kinder to the patient, and would do no harm.” And on reflection, Harriet’s perspective was one that I could see myself accepting should I be in a situation like the one  she described. It’s far easier to be dogmatic when you don’t have a patient standing in front of you. But the comments led me to consider possible situations where a placebo might actually be the most desirable treatment option. If I find some, should I be as dogmatic about homeopathy as I am about other placebos?

Nicely, Kevin Smith, writing in the journal Bioethics, examines the ethics of placebos, based on an analysis of homeopathy. Homeopathy is the ultimate placebo in routine use — most remedies contain only sugar and water, lacking a single molecule of any potentially medicinal ingredient. Smith’s paper, Against Homeopathy — A Utilitarian Perspective, is sadly behind a paywall.  So I’ll try to summarize his analysis, and add my perspective as a health care worker who regularly encounters homeopathy.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Medical Ethics

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Smallpox and Pseudomedicine

A good case of smallpox may rid the system of more scrofulous, tubercular, syphilitic and other poisons than could otherwise be eliminated in a lifetime. Therefore, smallpox is certainly to be preferred to vaccination. The one means elimination of chronic disease, the other the making of it.

Naturopaths do not believe in artificial immunization . . .

—Harry Riley Spitler, Basic Naturopathy: a textbook (American Naturopathic Association, Inc., 1948). Quoted here.

Here’s what a good case of smallpox will do for you:

If you’re lucky enough to beat the reaper (20-60%; 80% or higher in infants) or blindness (up to 30%), those blisters will leave you scarred for life. Oh, and the next time a good smallpox epidemic comes around, your children born since the last one will catch it and contribute their fair share to the death rate. But not you because you’ll be immune, so you’ll have the “preferred” experience of watching your children die well before you do.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Epidemiology, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Public Health, Vaccines

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