Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is no longer fringe, and anything but the mom-and-pop image that manufacturers carefully craft. CAM is big business, and most Americans today take some sort of supplement. The impetus for my blogging (and tilting at CAM windmills) emerged from years spent working in a pharmacy with a heavy reliance on CAM sales. If it was unorthodox, this store probably sold it. Conventional drug products (the ones I was familiar with) were hidden off in a corner, and the store was otherwise crowded with herbal remedies, homeopathy, and different forms of detox kits and candida cleanses. All of this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard about in pharmacy school – so I started researching.
I looked at CAM from a scientific evidence perspective, the one I was taught in pharmacy school, using the same approach I’d take when assessing a new drug. Did the evidence support the claims made about these products, or not? The answers, as you might expect, were often the same. There was little or no credible evidence to demonstrate CAM had any meaningful benefits. I started blogging my own reviews as a way of documenting my own research, while offering some information to anyone on the Interwebs who might be searching for evidence.
Over time my blogging focus expanded, as I asked myself the inevitable questions: How could implausible products with no scientific backing even be approved for sale at all? I discovered the regulatory double-standard allowed for anything considered a dietary supplement (or in Canada, a “natural health product“) and the history and politics that have made CAM the “Wild West” of health care, with a marketplace that prioritizes a manufacturer’s right to sell over a consumer’s right to purchase a product that is safe and effective. Given the retail marketplace that’s been established by regulators like the FDA and Health Canada, I’ve turned my focus on to health professionals, who have an ethical responsibility to put patient interests above that of commercial interests. From a professional practice and medical ethics perspective, I have argued that health professionals that sell or promote CAM are on ethically shaky ground, and compromise the credibility of the profession.
Despite the lack of evidence that CAM (in general) offers any health benefits at all, it’s been remarkable to watch its popularity grow, to the point where even large pharmacy chains now sell aisles of products that are implausible and often highly questionable. Generally meeting these changes with a collective shrug, the pharmacy profession has even tried to lower its own ethical standards. While I do get the occasional encouragement from some of my peers, most just say “it’s business” or “the customer wants it, and these are legal products.” My argument today is CAM fails even this lower ethical bar. (more…)
Some of these products contain no medicine at all.
Retail pharmacies have a sugar pill problem. Homeopathic “remedies” may look like conventional medicine when they’re stocked on pharmacy shelves, like the photo above. But unlike conventional medicine, homeopathic products don’t contain any “medicine” at all. They are effectively sugar pills – placebos. Not surprisingly, there is convincing evidence to show that homeopathy is useless as a medical treatment, and fundamentally incompatible with a scientific understanding of medicine, biochemistry and even physics. Questions have been raised about the ethics of selling homeopathy in pharmacies to consumers who may not realize what they’re buying. This growing practice is attracting sharp criticism from other health professions. So why do pharmacies sell them? And what will it take for pharmacies to change? (more…)
Imagine a retail pharmacy where some of the medicines on the shelves have been replaced with similar-looking packages that contain no active ingredients at all. There is no easy way to distinguish between the real and the fake.
Another section of the store offers a number of remedies with fantastic claims, such as “boosting” the immune system, “detoxifying” the body, or “cleansing” you of microscopic Candida. They look sciencey, unless you realize that they treat imaginary medical conditions.
A corner of the store offers unpurified drugs supplied as tinctures and teas. The active ingredients aren’t known, and the batch-to-batch consistency of the product is unclear. The store will suggest products for you based on your symptoms.
Walk past the enormous wall of vitamins and other supplements and you’ll find a nutritionist who will tell you what products you should be taking. You’ll also find a weight loss section. From a science-based perspective, this shouldn’t even exist, given no product has been shown to offer any meaningful benefit. But there are dozens of products for sale.
At the back of the store you’ll finally find the pharmacist. A sign on the counter offers blood- and saliva-based tests for food “intolerance” and adrenal “fatigue”, claiming to test for medical conditions that actually don’t exist or lack an evidence base. The pharmacy also offers a large compounding practice, advertising what it calls “personalized” approaches to hormone replacement with “bioidentical” hormones.
Welcome to the “integrative” pharmacy.
You may not see all these features in your local drug store, but they’re coming: claims of a new “integrative” way to provide health care that is changing the face of retail pharmacy. Unfortunately, it’s harkening back to the era of patent medicines and snake oil. It’s not good for the pharmacists and the profession of pharmacy, and it’s even worse for patients. (more…)
One of my earliest lessons as a pharmacist working in the “real world” was that customers didn’t always act the way I expected. Parents of sick children frequently fell into this category — and the typical vignette went like this for me:
- Parent has determined that their child is sick, and needs some sort of over-the-counter medicine.
- Parent asks pharmacist for advice selecting a product from the dozens on the shelves.
- Pharmacist uses the opportunity to provide science-based advice, and assures parent that no drug therapy is necessary.
- Parent directly questions the validity of this advice, and may ask about the merits of a specific product they have already identified.
- Pharmacist explains efficacy and risk of the product, and provides general non-drug symptom management suggestions.
- Parent thanks pharmacist, selects product despite advice, and walks to the front of the store to pay.
In many ways, a pharmacy purchase mirrors the patient-physician interaction that ends with a prescription being written — it’s what feels like the logical end to the consultation, and without it, feels incomplete. It’s something that I’m observing more and more frequently when advising parents about cough and cold products for children.
Chelation is the provision of a substance to increase the body’s excretion of heavy metals. In poisoning situations (lead, aluminum, iron, etc.), chelation is medically necessary, objectively effective, and approved for use. But the same term has a completely different meaning in the alternative medicine universe, where proponents often believe heavy metal toxicity is the “one true cause” of disease, and chelation can undo microvascular inflammation, atherosclerosis, and even aging itself. From early days as an unproven treatment of coronary artery disease, its use has expanded to include autism, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and dozens of other diseases. Today, chelation is widely available. Regrettably, my own profession, pharmacy, facilitates this pseudoscience by manufacturing and selling chelation products.
Provoked urine tests are a common entry point to chelation therapy. Patients are given a product to provoke heavy metal excretion. The urine is tested and the patient is informed that they’re “toxic” and require chelation. Unfortunately, these results are meaningless and provide no evidence that chelation is medically necessary. But that’s the justification used for advocating a treatment regimen that will be useless at best and fatal at worst. A recent Medical Letter review concluded:
Medical Letter consultants believe that the use of chelation therapy in non-standard protocols for unsubstantiated indications should be discouraged. The results of provoked urine testing are not an acceptable basis for such treatment.
Providing chelation to patients isn’t a straightforward matter. It’s typically an intravenous infusion (though there are some oral products). Unless you’re part of the dubious TACT trial, which has administration centres across the United States and Canada, there are few products commercially available. For example, edetate calcium disodium (EDTA) is approved for sale in the United States but not Canada. Edetate disodium (also called EDTA) is not approved for sale in either country. But these products are widely available: they’re manufactured by pharmacists in pharmacies.