You might have noticed that Holland and Barrett, the high street's most proliferative purveyor of pointless supplements, homeopathic, and herbal medicines are in the midst of a rather odd marketing campaign, called #AskOurOwls.
#AskOurOwls means you can ask any question about a Holland and Barrett product, and if their staff can't answer your question, you get 20% off in store. This is accompanied by a kawaii cute animated advert featuring bunnies, hedgehog, and other adorable woodland creatures. Because natural remedies are always totally cute, safe and innocuous, right? And presumably because everyone who works there is in actual fact a shape-shifting owl cavorting as a human. Its like David Icke stuff, but with more feathers.
In the words of the ad agency who designed it:
"The campaign aims to demonstrate Holland & Barrett’s USP of considerable staff expertise, endorsing the fact that every Holland & Barrett store within the UK has had an officially qualified associate to give advice on all own label supplements, vitamins, healthy foods and weight management products"
Now, I've lost count of the number of enquiries I've dealt with because of Holland and Barrett. These enquiries are usually along the lines of "My patient has bought <insert Holland and Barrett product> and wants to know if they're safe to use with their other medicines." In some of these cases, patients have presented with over £40 worth of herbal medicines etc, and have then been told that no, they can't take it, either because it will interact with their medicines, or because it isn't suitable to be taken by someone with their medical problems.
I have no idea what the Holland and Barrett in-house staff training consists of, but I'm not sure what part of it would allow someone to buy multiple, expensive remedies beforethey know if they are safe for them to use. Its not only a dangerous strategy, but its really very poor customer service, and doesn't do much to 'demonstrate considerable staff expertise'.
Anecdotally, I have heard that in some areas, Holland and Barrett employees have been known to send patients to a nearby pharmacy to ask if they are able to take a product. Whilst this at least demonstrates an awareness of their knowledge limitations, its also pretty inconvenient for the customer to have to traipse in and out of different shops, and i should imagine pretty irritating for the pharmacist, who is having to do H&B's work for them. And believe me, these sorts of enquiries aren't always easy to do, and can be very time consuming.
So that's not all that encouraging for their #AskOurOwls scheme, is it? And it is a really quite bizarre strategy. If I ask a question about whether a product is safe for me to take, and they can't answer it, I can't really see how offering me a discount on something that I don't know is safe or not would help.
Of course the skeptical community understandably used this opportunity to Ask Some Owls some reasonable questions about where the evidence is for many of the products they sell, why they sell homeopathy when there is literally nothing in it, why they promote detox products when there is no scientific evidence for detox, why they sell high dose vitamins when there is some evidence that they may increase cancer risk etc. And no answers flowed in at all. I ask three questions, and got no response, then sent a Tweet about how I had gotten no response. This did attract a -very curt and actually pretty damn rude- reply from Holland and Barrett demanding to know if it was a question or not.
Funnily enough, after being bombarded with questions about their selling of quackery, the terms and conditions now read that the offer does not apply to questions asked via Facebook or Twitter. I have no idea at all whether these terms were the same at the start of the campaign (do let me know if you know), but it would seem very strange indeed if they have launched a campaign centred around a hashtag but which is not for use on social media. It would sort of suggest that they was actually being rather misleading, or just very careless in the original advertising campaign. Or, of course, that they hadn't quite thought through the consequences of encouraging people to ask questions about remedies that have no basis in science or evidence. Presumably they think that us mean skeptic-types will be so overwhelmed by their wondrous array of snake oil remedies that we will turn to mush and be unable to think of a question in store.
Let's see what that ad agency says again, shall we?
"The brand strategy extends to social media, where customers can engage with Holland& Barrett staff via Twitter to answer relevant health questions. By using the hashtag, #askourowls, customers are directed back to the brand."
Suspicious, non? And lets just think about this strategy for a moment. They are encouraging people to ask them health questions in less than 140 characters. Given that people are complex, and may have multiple health issues and be on many different medicines, this seems a somewhat cavalier strategy.
Then again, Holland and Barrett are home to some other really quite bizarre offers as well. What on earth is going on with that buy one, get the other for 1p thing? Save everyone the bother of having to faff about with change and just do a plain old BOGOF, for goodness sake. Or, even better, how about not encouraging pointless polypharmacy with multi-buy offers in an area where they are clinically inappropriate and potentially even dangerous?
So, next time you're passing a Holland and Barrett store, take a moment or two to drop in, and ask them for the evidence. If they can't provide you with any, then enjoy your 20% off- you should be able to find something to buy there- they do sell Bombay mix after all, which is approximately 50% more baked than their #AskOurOwls campaign ever was. Do let me know how you got on, if you do get a chance to ask a question.
You can read some more about how the #AskOurOwls campaign went wrong for H&B but right for skeptics here, and the sort of non-answer Slipp Digby got here.
UPDATE: interestingly, a mere few hours after I published this post, I got an @reply from Holland and Barrett on Twitter, promising me that someone was looking into my enquiry about acai and i would hear from a nutritionist soon. At the same time, they were merrily sending out requests for follows so that they could DM answers to many other people who had asked similar questions. However, I've never heard anything since, or been asked to follow them to get a DM response-this is now 3 days after they told me someone would contact me.
Putting aside all the other problems with this campaign, this is just utterly terrible customer service. My job involves me dealing with often very complex enquiries, and it would maybe take me three days maximum to do a complex enquiry involving a full research strategy, medical literature searches, critical appraisal of multiple papers, and to compose an answer. I would, of course, acknowledge the enquiry immediately and let the enquirer know of any delays- its common courtesy.
I can't help but notice that on their Twitter feed they do appear to be answering other questions about their products using their Timeline. So why are they using DMs to answer any which question the efficacy of their products?
I've decided to give them another chance, however, and have just asked them another, very specific question, which would take a pharmacist maybe 30mins-1 hour to answer fully:
We'll see how long that takes to get a response, shall we?
(Update: I never did hear back at all)
In February 2013, my friend @EBMScientist and I delivered a Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub talk entitled Homeopathy: Where's The Harm? As a follow up to this, we've decided to write a series of blog posts expanding on a number of points we covered in the talk.
In the next instalment of our series on the harms of homeopathy, I want to talk about interactions. I've covered this a bit in the past, but let's have a look at this area in a bit more detail.
We all hopefully know by now that homeopathic medicines pretty much have no trace of active ingredient in them by now. Do we need to worry about drug interactions with homeopathic remedies?
Can homeopathic medicines interact with conventional medicines?
The obvious answer is no. Magic Sugar Water Pills are highly unlikely to affect any conventional medicines. There's a lack of actual evidence to prove this, but I think it's pretty safe to rely on a theoretical basis here. So that's great, right, blog post over and see you later. If only it were that simple.
Can homeopathic practitioners interact with conventional medicines?
Unfortunately, yes. very much so. It's pretty well known that homeopathic practitioners step over (and in some cases stomp over, then jump up and down repeatedly on) the boundaries between conventional and homeopathic medicines, just by the advice they give. One example would be vaccines- many homeopathic practitioners are against vaccines and therefore advise their patients to avoid them- Just look at the emails sent by pharmacist (and embarrassment to the profession) Tony Pinkus to an undercover BBC reporter. Little offhand remarks about the toxicity of conventional medicines, or big pharma conspiracies, or how conventional medicines might not work, all add up to the effect of harming the patient's relationship with their actual doctor. And how about the spectacular example of inappropriate advice in my previous post?
Can conventional medicines interact with homeopathic medicines?
I'd like to say no here, because of course homeopathic medicines are inert and don't actually contain any medicine. It is the case, however, that homeopathic practitioners unfortunately think otherwise, which can lead to a huge amount of harm as patients discontinue their conventional medicine in favour of homeopathy.
I have in front of me a book called "Homeopathic Pharmacy", by Stephen Kayne. This is a book aimed at healthcare professionals, and indeed is a recommended resource for medicines information pharmacists in the UK. (EDIT: This book no longer appears as a recommended source.) And yet, even this source, which we could consider to be one of the more balanced tomes (despite the ominous mention of Dana Ullman in the acknowledgements), contains a wealth of dangerous nonsense. This book tells me that, for example, "potent topical steroids are thought to negate the use of homeopathy in the treatment of eczema and psoriasis" Now I know more than some that skin conditions such as this can be horrifically uncomfortable, not to mention their effects on your self-esteem. Stopping treatment that works in favour of a placebo is not, in my opinion, acceptable in any shape or form, especially given how vulnerable and desperate people can be because of skin conditions- don't forget that in some cases, dermatological conditions are terminal, as they can drive sufferers to suicide.
There can, apparently, be interactions between oral steroids and homeopathy too. "the patient's symptoms tend to be masked, however, making an accurate choice of remedy much more difficult", we are told on page 205 of Homeopathic Pharmacy. Well, you could call it a masking of symptoms, or you could- as I prefer, refer to it as "working". So what is the average homeopath to do then, when presented with a patient who is taking steroids but seeking their help? It would seem that the obvious (but sadly not the ethical) solution would be to ask them to discontinue their steroids so that that the symptoms are "unmasked". This will obviously lead to an increase in symptoms for the patient, and lead to unnecessary suffering, but it can also precipitate acute adrenocortical insufficiency, which can in the worst case scenario be fatal. Patients should "ideally" discontinue their steroids for 6 weeks prior to initiating a homeopathic remedy- this is more than enough time to result in loss of control in their condition.
It's not just drugs themselves that can be a problem, but the excipients (inactive ingredients used in the formulation of a medicine) too. Strong flavours used in syrups, for example. This could potentially discourage patients to take- or to give their child- antibiotic syrups, with the potential to worsen or prolong a patient's condition.
Can foodstuffs interact with homeopathic medicines?
Yes, apparently so, though again there is no hard study evidence for this- why would there be, when there's no good hard study evidence that homeopathy works in the first place? Coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, and spicy foods are all to be avoided. Aside from being unnecessarily restrictive, and potentially causing a patient anxiety, this idea fills me with horror. Imagine a life without tea, chocolate, or spicy foods. I rely on all of these three things to get me through my daily life, and would inevitably become depressed if I had to avoid any of them.
Can homeopathy interact with homeopathy?
I know, right? What a bizarre question, given that homeopathic remedies are sugar with specially shaken water sprinkled on. Can sugar interact with sugar? Well it seems that someone has decided that they can, based on a grand total of no evidence. Aromatic preparations, such as camphor, menthol, and peppermint, are supposed to inactivate other homeopathic medicines. Remember, though, that homeopathic camphor, menthol or peppermint is highly unlikely to actually contain any molecules of camphor, menthol or peppermint, and we're left in a bit of a ridiculous situation based on nothing at all.
It would seem that homeopaths utilize certain foods or remedies as "antidotes". Apparently, if a remedy isn't working, and they want to try something else, they might ask a patient to drink a cup of coffee, or take a remedy like camphor to "wash out" the previous remedy so that they can start again. I'll refer you again to "Homopathic Pharmacy"- with a reminder that this is one of the more reasonable texts:
"It is certainly not dangerous in life-threatening terms, but used injudiciously will interfere with the vibrational pattern of the vital force."
Vital force, vibrational energy, sugar as an antidote to sugar, and none of it- not a scrap- based on science, evidence, or even basic logic.
See you again soon for the next episode :)
It's lovely for once to be able to write about something that works, instead of something which has little to no evidence of it working. However, I wanted to share with you some reasons why I would tend to steer people away from a "natural" remedy, despite the evidence being positive. Why St John's Wort today? Well, my RSS feed today popped up with:
GPs prefer herbal remedies to Prozac, says survey
A survey by Schwabe Pharma found that GPs are increasingly likely to prescribe herbal remedies such as St John's wort for depression rather than Prozac.(
I haven't been able to find the actual story, or the press release from Schwabe Pharma (who, incidentally, produce St John's Wort, so wouldn't be without bias), but it got me thinking anyway.
Is it because of a big pharma conspiracy? Is it because I'm in cahoots with the evil drug companies and all I want is money? Is it because I'm just too close-minded to be able to accept anything other than conventional medicines? Is it because I love seeing patients suffer? Well, in short no.
I find herbal medicines really interesting. Unlike homeopathy, which has no theoretical possibility of working, herbal medicines contain plant material with high enough levels of chemical constituents to cause a pharmacological effect. There's something quite beautiful about the concept of using plants for medicinal purposes. The problem with them lies in the fact that there just aren't enough studies done for us to be able to say whether they work, or more importantly, whether they harm. Whilst herbal remedies have enough "medicine" in them to make them work, this also means they have enough in them to cause adverse reactions, to interact with other herbs, medication, illnesses and so on. Without Big Pharma funding, though, its not that likely that large, well designed trials will be undertaken on them, so using herbal medicines can be a bit like shooting in the dark. Even if we don't find any documented issues with a herb, this doesn't mean none exist, it may just mean that nobody has looked at (or published) any issues yet.
St John's Wort is different. There is now a pretty large body of evidence to suggest that it works, and that it works better than placebo and as well as conventional antidepressants like the SSRIs. We also know a fair bit about its interactions and its adverse drug reactions... So that's great then, yes? That means healthcare professionals should all consider it as a better choice than the conventional medicines, with all their nasty side effects etc, right?
Well, in my opinion: not always. Whilst we know a fair amount about it, the problem here lies with production, and the inherent variability in herbal medicines. Because they're made from plant materials, there can be a huge amount of variability in what each tablet contains.. Even if you're using a product licensed under the Traditional Herbal Registration scheme, there can still be variability between each batch, depending on where the plant was grown, the time of year/ day it was harvested, and what it was treated after it was harvested. So, if you get stabilised on one batch of medicine, the next batch may contain differing amounts of active ingredients, which could mean a whole host of things might happen: it might work better, it might start interacting with your other meds, it might trigger a side effect etc. Then, just when you're getting used to that batch, the next one is different too, etc etc.
I've come across a few enquiries where a patient wants to use St John's Wort as add-on therapy along with their antidepressants. It maybe doesn't occur to the patient or their GP/pharmacist etc that it actually works in a very similar way to a conventional antidepressant. Combinations of antidepressants are usually only done under specialist care (with a few exceptions) because combining them increases the risk of some very severe side effects such as serotonin syndrome- the same applies to St John's Wort. The fact it's "natural" seems to blindside people into forgetting the usual principles of how medicines work.
This is before we even get into the territory of risks associated with self-treatment of what can be a very, very serious disease. Would I exclude use of St John's Wort entirely, for everyone? No, because it does appear to work. But do I treat it with as much (if not more) caution than I would an SSRI? Yes, because there's still not that much information about its safety in the grand scheme of things. So this sort of negates the point of it, to be honest.
Hopefully that explains a bit about why I'm cautious about herbal medicines.
Have a lovely New Year's Eve folks, see you again in 2013.