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Is “harnessing the power of placebo” worthwhile to treat anything?

Placebonex
We frequently write about placebo effects here on Science-Based Medicine. The reason is simple. They are an important topic in medicine and, at least as importantly, understanding placebo effects is critical to understanding the exaggerated claims of advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently called “integrative medicine” (i.e., integrating pseudoscience with science). Over the years, I (and, of course, others) have documented how CAM advocates have consistently moved the goalposts with respect to the efficacy of their pseudoscientific interventions. As larger and better-designed clinical trials have been done demonstrating that various CAM therapies without a basis in science—I’m distinguishing these from science-based modalities that have been co-opted and “rebranded” as CAM, such as exercise and nutrition—have no specific effects detectable above placebo effects, CAM advocates move the goalposts and claim that CAM works through the “power of placebo” and do their best to claim that “harnessing” that “power of placebo” is a justification to use their treatments. It turns out, however, that when placebo effects are examined rigorously there’s just not a lot of there there, so to speak. Results are underwhelming, and trying to “harness the power of placebo” without an intervention that actually impacts the pathophysiology of disease can even be dangerous. That’s not to say that learning to maximize placebo responses (whatever they are) while administering effective medical treatments isn’t important; rather, it’s to point out that, by themselves, placebo effects are not of much value.

Unfortunately, none of this has stopped what Steve Novella refers to as the “placebo narrative” from insinuating itself into lay discussions of medicine. That narrative proclaims in breathless terms (as Steve put it) the “surprising power of the placebo effect” without putting it into reasonable perspective or even really defining what is meant by “placebo effect.” First, as we have tried to explain time and time again here, there is no single “placebo effect.” There are placebo effects. Second, the only really correct reference to “the placebo response” or “placebo effect” is the outcome measured in the placebo arm of a clinical trial. The problem is that, all too often, discussions of placebo responses conflate the placebo effect measured in a clinical trial with all the other various placebo effects that add up to the response that is measured in that trial. Those effects include reporting biases, researcher biases, regression to the mean, conditioning, and many other components that contribute to what is measured in the outcome of a clinical trial. Another common misconception about placebo effects is that they are somehow “mind over matter,” that we can heal ourselves (or at least reduce our symptoms) through the power of will and mind. This is not true. Placebo effects are not the power of positive thinking.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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The Ethics of Prescribing Worthless Treatments

ethics smallIs it ever ethical for a physician to prescribe a treatment to a patient that they know to be entirely without efficacy? Is it ever possible to do this without deceiving the patient to some degree? I think the answer to both questions is a clear “no.”

Within the flipped reality of “alternative medicine,” however, it suddenly becomes acceptable to deceive patients and sell them worthless treatments, as long as the deception was minimally successful.

A recent editorial in Scientific American by Allison Bond addresses this question. She manages to hit upon many of the reasons placebo medicine is inappropriate, but her reasoning is a bit muddled and she comes, in my opinion, to the wrong conclusion. She wraps her commentary in an anecdote of a terminal patient for whom she cared who found relief from reiki. She concludes:

Of course, when it comes to treating patients with painful, life-threatening diseases, the goal of our care should be to lessen suffering, regardless of where such relief originates. A few months after Ms. W left the hospital, I learned that she had died, and the news hit me hard. I thought back to her treatment under our care and hoped that even among the misery, we had eased her suffering through our therapies—“alternative” or not.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics

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Bastions of quackademic medicine: Georgetown University

The cover of Georgetown Medicine Spring/Summer 2015 issue. This image will drive Mark Crislip crazy, as it features yet another acupuncturist not using gloves while sticking needles into people. Dr. Gorski loves watching Dr. Crislip's reactions to such photos.

The cover of Georgetown Medicine Spring/Summer 2015 issue. This image will drive Mark Crislip crazy, as it features yet another acupuncturist not using gloves while sticking needles into people. Dr. Gorski loves watching Dr. Crislip’s reactions to such photos.

We frequently discuss a disturbing phenomenon known as quackademic medicine. Basically, quackademic medicine is a phenomenon that has taken hold over the last two decades in medical academia in which once ostensibly science-based medical schools and academic medical centers embrace quackery. This embrace was once called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) but among quackademics the preferred term is now “integrative medicine.” Of course, when looked at objectively, integrative medicine is far more a brand than a specialty. Specifically, it’s a combination of rebranding some science-based modalities, such as nutrition and exercise, as somehow being “alternative” or “integrative” with the integration of outright quackery, such as reiki and “energy healing,” acupuncture, and naturopathy, into conventional medicine. As my good bud and fellow Science-Based Medicine (SBM) blogger Mark Crislip put it, mixing cow pie with apple pie does not make the cow pie better, but we seem to be “integrating” the cow pie of quackery with the apple pie of science-based medicine thinking that somehow it will improve the smell, taste, and texture of the cow pie.

I remember how, when I first discovered how prevalent outright pseudoscience and quackery had become in medical academia (which was before I became one of the founding SBM bloggers), I was in denial. I couldn’t believe it. Then I tracked this phenomenon with something I called the Academic Woo Aggregator. It turned out to be a hopeless endeavor because, as I soon discovered, the phenomenon was so pervasive that it was really hard to keep the Aggregator up to date. Since then, I’ve generally only focused on particularly egregious examples, naming names when institutions like my alma mater embrace anthroposophic medicine; “respectable” journals publish “integrative medicine” guidelines for breast cancer patients; cancer organizations include “integrative oncology” in their professional meetings; NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers promote reiki to pediatric cancer patients or offer high dose unproven vitamin C treatment to patients; or respected academic institutions embrace traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the quackery that is function medicine. You get the idea. It’s depressing just how far medical academia has fallen in terms of being “open-minded” to the point of brains falling out when it comes to medical pseudoscience.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Medical Academia

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Should physicians and managed care organizations offer homeopathy?

Homeopathy is water

Anyone who reads Science-Based Medicine on even a semi-regular basis will know our collective opinion of homeopathy. Basically, at its core, homeopathy is pure quackery.

I don’t care if it’s repetitive to say this yet again because it can’t be emphasized enough times that homeopathy is The One Quackery To Rule Them All. OK, there are others that compete for that title, such as reiki and other magical “energy therapies” like therapeutic touch, both of which, unfortunately, can be found in many academic medical centers where the faculty really should know better. Any “medicine” whose very precepts break multiple laws of physics and chemistry, laws that would have to be proven not just wrong but spectacularly wrong for homeopathy to work, deserves only ridicule.

The “laws” of homeopathy

Think of it this way. There are two “laws” of homeopathy, neither of which has any basis in reality. First, there is the law that states “like cures like” and asserts that, to relieve a symptom, you need to use a substance that causes that same symptom in healthy adults. There is, of course, no evidence that this is a general principle of medicine. For instance, we don’t generally treat fever by administering something that causes fever or treat vomiting with something that causes vomiting. The second law, however, is the one that’s completely ridiculous. Basically, it’s the law of infinitesimals. This law states that a homeopathic remedy is made stronger with dilution, specifically serial dilutions with vigorous shaking between each dilution step to “potentize” the remedy. That’s ridiculous enough, but homeopaths, never satisfied with the merely ridiculous have to turn the ridiculous up to 11 and beyond by using this principle to assert that dilutions far beyond the point where there is likely even to be a single molecule of the original remedy left are effective and become more so with more dilution. For instance, a 30C dilution is 30 one hundred-fold dilutions (C=100, get it?), or a 1060 dilution. Avogadro’s number is only on the order of 6 x 1023, or more than 1036-fold less than the dilution. The simple mathematics of homeopathy just doesn’t work, although this doesn’t stop homeopaths from coming up with some truly spectacular flights of pseudoscience (like the “memory of water”) to try to “explain” how it can work.
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Posted in: Homeopathy

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Clinical trials of homeopathy versus “respect for science”

Trojan Rabbit

A few months ago, Steve Novella and I published an article in Trends in Molecular Medicine entitled “Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?” It was our first foray together into publishing commentary about science-based medicine versus evidence-based medicine, using a topic that we’ve both written extensively about over the years on this blog and our respective personal blogs. Specifically, we discussed whether it is worthwhile to do randomized clinical trials (RCTs) testing highly improbable treatments, such as reiki and homeopathy, both of which have no physical basis to believe that they do anything whatsoever. As I’ve said many times before, reiki is simply faith healing in which Eastern mysticism is substituted for Christian beliefs, and homeopathy, as we’ve discussed many times here on SBM, is vitalistic sympathetic magic with no evidence to support its two laws.

To our surprise, that article generated a fair amount of press (for example this), with accounts of it showing up in the media in various places and Steven and I being asked to do a fair number of interviews. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the editor made the article available for free for a month after its initial publication. (Unfortunately it’s back behind the pay wall again.) Part of the reason is that, intuitively, it makes sense to people not to waste money testing what is, at its core, magic. When I followed up that publication with an article criticizing “integrative oncology” in Nature Reviews Cancer entitled “Integrative oncology: Really the best of both worlds?“, the target was well and truly on my back. Indeed, let’s just say that the Society for Integrative Oncology and the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (CAHCIM) are quite unhappy with me. When both their letters to the editor are published (right now, only one is), I might even blog about them.

In the meantime, I want to deal with criticism published in an unexpected place, albeit not by unexpected critics. The reason is that this criticism relies on a common straw man caricature of what we are saying when we advocate science-based medicine (SBM) that considers prior plausibility in determining what modalities to test in clinical trials and understands Bayesian thinking in which prior plausibility affects posterior plausibility that a “significant” result is not a false positive in contrast to the current evidence-based medicine (EBM) paradigm, which relegates basic science knowledge, even well-established principles of science that show that something like, say, homeopathy or reiki is impossible under the current understanding of physics, chemistry and biology, to the lowest rung on the EBM pyramid. It’s also a criticism that comes up frequently enough that, even though it’s been addressed before in various ways by various SBM bloggers, it’s worth revisiting from time to time. In this case, that’s particularly so because one of the two critics taking Steve and me to task is currently embroiled in a controversy about testing homeopathy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at the University of Toronto (more details on that later). Let’s just say, the criticism of Steve and me gives me an “in” to address a story that I thought had passed me by, and I intend to take it.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy

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The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine

Steve still happens to be galavanting about Australia, spreading science, skepticism, and, of course, science-based medicine Down Under. Given that, he has been unable to produce new content for today. Never one to let such an opportunity pass, I decided to take advantage in order to do a little shameless self promotion.

A week and a half ago, I gave a talk at Skepticon 7 in Springfield, MO, entitled “The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine”. It has now been posted on YouTube:

Because some of the sound didn’t come through as well as one might hope, I’m also including the full video of Kim Tinkham that I used early in the talk to illustrate a point. I only used about two minutes’ worth of it, but here is the whole thing, in case you’re interested:

Let me know what you think! And don’t forget to donate to Skepticon, to keep the skeptical goodness coming next year and beyond.

Posted in: Cancer, Religion, Science and Medicine

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Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?

 

I just thought that I’d take the editor’s (and, speaking for Steve, the founder’s) prerogative to promote our own efforts. Regular readers of SBM are familiar with our message with respect to randomized clinical trials of highly implausible “complementary and alternative medicine” treatments, such as homeopathy or reiki. Well, believe it or not, Steve and I managed to get a commentary published in a very good journal in which we present the SBM viewpoint with respect to these trials. Even better, at least for now, you can read it too, because it doesn’t appear to be behind a paywall. (I’m at home as I write this, and I can read the whole thing on my wifi, no VPN needed.)

The article is entitled “Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?” There’s also been a fair amount of news coverage on the article, and I’ve been frantically doing interviews over the last couple of days, including:

There are likely to be at least a couple more, given the interviews I’ve done; that is, unless editors reject the ideas.

In any case, Steve and I are interested in your comments. Trends in Molecular Medicine is good in that it published our article and it’s a pretty high impact review journal, but it doesn’t have a section for comments. So consider this your section for comments on our article.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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A tale of quackademic medicine at the University of Arizona Cancer Center

Quackademic medicine.

I love that term, because it succinctly describes the infiltration of pseudoscientific medicine into medical academia. As I’ve said many times, I wish I had been the one to coin the phrase, but I wasn’t. To the best of my ability to determine, I first picked it up from Dr. R. W. Donnell back in 2008 and haven’t been able to find an earlier use of the term. As much as I try to give credit where credit is due, I have, however, appropriated the term “quackademic medicine” (not to mention its variants, like “quackademia”), used it, and tried my best to popularize it among supporters of science-based medicine. Indeed, one of my earliest posts on this blog was about how quackery has infiltrated the hallowed halls of medical academia, complete with links to medical schools that have “integrative medicine” programs and even medical schools that promoted the purely magic-based medical modalities known as reiki and homeopathy. It’s been a recurrent topic on this blog ever since, leading to a number posts on the unethical clinical trials of treatments with zero or minimal pre-trial plausibility, the degradation of the scientific basis of medicine, and the acceptance of magical thinking as a means of treating patients in all too many medical centers.

One strong candidate for quackademic ground zero, if there can be such a thing for the phenomenon like quackademic medicine, which is creeping up like so much kudzu in the cracks of the edifice of science-based medicine (SBM), is the University of Arizona. U. of A. is, of course, the home of one of the originators of the concept of quackademic medicine and one of its most famous and tireless promoters, Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil, as you might recall, has even been the driving force for creating a highly dubious “board certification” in integrative medicine. Sadly, apparently this new board certification has been so popular among physicians wanting to “integrate” a little quackery into their practices, that its first examination has been delayed from May to November 2014, so that the American Board of Physician Specialties can figure out how to accommodate the unexpectedly large number of applicants.

So what happens when a patient arrives at U. of A. for treatment? I found out last week when I received an e-mail, which led to a fairly long e-mail exchange, with a man whose son was diagnosed with leukemia and is being treated at the University of Arizona Cancer Center (UACC). Although this man gave me permission to use his name, I am going to decline to do so because there is a child involved, although anyone involved in his case at U. of A. will likely quickly be able to identify who the man is. It turns out that he is a professor at U. of A. in a humanities department (which is why I’ll refer to him henceforth as the Professor), and, even though he is not a scientist, he clearly knows how to think (which would not be surprising if you knew what department he was in). In his e-mail, he told me how appalled he was at the sorts of treatments being offered to his son:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia, Religion

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Does thinking make it so? CAM placebo fantasy versus scientific reality

Last week, I discussed a rather execrable study. Actually, the study itself wasn’t so execrable, at least not in its design, which was a fairly straightforward three-arm randomized clinical trial. Rather it was the interpretation of the study’s results that was execrable. In brief, the authors tested an “energy healing” modality known as “energy chelation” versus a placebo (sham “energy chelation”) and found, as is so often the case in studies of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM) that both modalities did better than no treatment on the primary outcomes but that the “real” treatment (if one can call energy chelation “real treatment”) produced outcomes that were statistically indistinguishable from the “sham” treatment. Not surprisingly, the next move on the part of the researchers was to do a bunch of comparisons, and, as is so often the case (particularly when one fails to correct statistically for multiple comparisons), they found a couple of secondary endpoints with barely statistically significant differences and trumpeted them as meaning that their “energy chelation therapy” has “significant promise for reducing fatigue.” They then argued that the study was also ” designed to examine nonspecific and placebo elements that may drive responses.”

Which brings us to the “power” of placebo.

As I was contemplating what I wanted to discuss this week, I thought about the study that Drs. Coyne, Johansen, and I objected to, but then I also thought about Dr. Crislip’s post last week and post I did about a month ago in which I noticed how lately CAM apologists seem to be—shall we say?—retooling their message in the wake of negative trial after negative trial of their implausible treatments. Gone (mostly) are claims of powerful specific effects and efficacy from treatments such as various “energy healing” modalities, acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like themselves, to be replaced by claims that physicians should embrace CAM because it’s “harnessing the power of placebo” to produce “powerful mind-body healing.” It’s a powerful message that has sucked in people who normally would be considered skeptics, such as Michael Specter, who, as I described, apparently bought into the message sufficiently that when Ted Kaptchuk was making the media round right before the holidays he happily published a fairly credulous interview with him entitled, The Power of Nothing: Could Studying the Placebo Effect Change the Way We Think About Medicine? (My answer: Very likely no.) Even Ira Flatow of Science Friday fell hard for Kaptchuk’s message, declaring at the beginning of the interview that Kaptchuk’s irritable bowel syndrome study is evidence that “placebos work even when patients are in on the secret.” (It’s not.)

That skeptics and scientists find the idea that the mind has the power to heal the body, often referred to as “self-healing” or “mind-body healing,” so seductive should probably not be surprising. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to cure themselves simply by willing it to be so? It’s a concept that, like so many concepts in CAM, goes far back into ancient times and stretches forward to today in ideas like The Secret, which goes quite a bit beyond the whole idea of “mind-body healing” or healing yourself because you wish it to be so, and declares that you can have virtually anything you want simply by thinking the right thoughts. In fact, to me it appears that the “powerful placebo” is being drafted in the service of supporting what are, at their core, mystical beliefs far more than science. I’d like to elaborate on that idea a bit more than I did last time I discussed this isssue, where I concluded by writing:

In the end, all too much of the rebranding of CAM as placebo and the selling of placebos as some sort of powerful “mind-body healing” strikes me as being much like The Secret, in which wishing makes it so.

Let’s take a look at just how far this goes.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Religion

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Reiki

reiki-hands-pic
Reiki (pronounced raykey) is a form of “energy healing,” essentially the Asian version of faith healing or laying on of hands. Practitioners believe they are transferring life energy to the patient, increasing their well-being. The practice is popular among nurses, and in fact is practiced by nurses at my own institution (Yale).

From reiki.org, we get this description:

Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.

Reiki is therefore a form of vitalism – the pre-scientific belief that some spiritual energy animates the living, and is what separates living things from non-living things. The notion of vitalism was always an intellectual place-holder, responsible for whatever aspects of biology were not currently understood. But as science progressed, eventually we figured out all of the basic functions of life and there was simply nothing left for the vital force to do. It therefore faded from scientific thinking. We can add to that the fact that no one has been able to provide positive evidence for the existence of a vital force – it remains entirely unknown to science.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine

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