research

The Society of Homeopaths and what they pass off as evidence

So today has seen some great news for rationality, science, and above all patients. The ASA has announced this ruling, leading to the Society of Homepaths taking down a rather large chunk of their website- the bit about what homeopathy can be used for.

However, using their search function, you can still find some of the nonsense they are promoting. I stumbled across this article, for example, entitled "Homeopathy Offers Alternative Relief for hay fever sufferers". I'd be very surprised if this article doesn't get taken down soon also, to be honest. It really should, given part of the ASA's ruling relates to their claims over the efficacy of homeopathy for hay fever. 

That use of the word alternative (as opposed to complementary) is interesting. That in itself suggests that the Society of Homeopaths are advocating patients not using conventional medicines in favour of their homeopathic products.

One thing that I have learnt about homeopaths is that, despite the fact that they often claim that randomised controlled trials (and indeed science in general) can't explain their wondrous treatment because of its individualised nature and quantum nanoparticles blah blah all the other words that they're clinging onto, they like to cite trials. A lot.

Homeopaths will often spout names of trials and provide links to PubMed abstracts with abandon, even when the trials say little about the clinical use of homeopathy in humans. In vitro or animal trials are favourites, and on the odd occasion where I have been sent a human trial, the result usually show that homeopathy is no better than placebo, and in some cases actually worse than placebo. At best, I'm guessing this is just ignorance- maybe they have misread the results of the trial? At worst (and more realistically), its a pretty obvious and petty method of obfuscation, and a pretty rubbish one at that. Presumably they think I will be so vowed by the fact that a trial exists that I wont bother to check the actual results of what the trial is saying.

This hayfever page overs a great example of this:

"A number of research trials have shown that homeopathic treatment can produce a significant improvement in hay fever symptoms,(4-7) but what does this involve?"

 Let's have a look at the "number of research trials", shall we?  

  • Reilly DT, Taylor MA, McSharry C, Aitchison T. Is homeopathy a placebo response?  Controlled trial of homeopathic potency, with pollen in hayfever as a model. Lancet,1986;2: 881-6.

This is a trial from 1986. Really, that's the best they can do, in 2013? The abstract of this trial appears impressive: "The homoeopathically treated patients showed a significant reduction in patient and doctor assessed symptom scores", but neglects to mention the most important part of a study like this: blinding. How can we assess the placebo effect in a study that isn't blinded? especially when the results rely on only reported outcomes. We can tick this one off the list as being a pretty rubbish effort at a trial. Must try harder. 

  •  Kleijnen J, Knipschild P, ter Riet G. Clinical trials of Homeopathy. Br Med J, 1991; 302:316-22.

Ahh, the early nineties. We're getting thoroughly modern and hip now, eh? This is a meta-analysis. hay fever isn't mentioned in the abstract at all, and the conclusion of the paper is that studies performed in homeopathy are rubbish, and better ones need to be done. Hardly a conclusive statement that homeopathy works for hay fever. We can tick this one off the list too.

We're now left with two trials to back up that statement above. To me, two trials is not "a number" of trials, even at this point. Even if these two trials were massive, robust, good quality randomised controlled trials, I still wouldn't be entirely convinced: I'd want to see the result replicated in as many different trials as possible. Anyway, we shalll soldier on, in the hopes of being dazzled by the brilliance of these two references. 

  • Launsø L, Kimby CK, Henningsen I, Fønnebø V. An exploratory retrospective study of people suffering from hypersensitivity illness who attend medical or classical homeopathic treatment. Homeopathy, 2006; 95: 73-80.

Oh dear. A retrospective study. So not a controlled trial at all then? The results? "The two groups of patients were similar in respect of their health at the start of the treatment, 57% of the patients who consulted a CH experienced an improvement of their state of health compared to 24% of the GP patients." well, that's all very well and good, but there is no blinding here whatsoever, and only 88 patients completed the study. means nothing at all, except for- as even the authors put it- as an exploratory study, maybe to try to find ways of how to conduct as more robust actual trial in the future.

That's it, down to the final trial. I'm expecting great things.  

  • Kim LS, Riedlinger JE, Baldwin CM, Hilli L, Khalsa SV, Messer SA, Waters RF. Treatment of Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis Using Homeopathic Preparation of Common Allergens in the Southwest Region of the US: A Randomized, Controlled Clinical Trial. Ann Pharmacother, 2005; 39(4): 617-24.

HURRAH!!! It's double-blind! We've gotten there! We've gotten some good, robust evidence tha- oh hang on, its only got 40 participants in it. It's just a wee ickle study that's far too small to draw any conclusions from.

So there you have it. This page is still up there on their website, using crappy references that don't back up their claims. The Society of Homeopaths- and quacks in general- need to realise that, no matter how hard they try, just trying to shoehorn poor excuses for studies in wherever they like isn't good enough.

Here's how it should go: you look at the evidence, you evaluate the evidence, and you make your claim on the basis of that evidence. Not: "I shall claim this, then try desperately to find something that vaguely looks like it backs me up, and I'll just hope for the best that no-one else bothers reading it. It seems the Society of Homeopaths are going in for the latter, and good on the ASA for pulling them up on it.

"We told the Society of Homeopaths not to discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought, including offering specific advice on or treatment for such conditions. We also told them not to make health claims for homeopathy unless they held sufficiently robust evidence of efficacy." -ASA ruling


Hxxx

Making Clinical Trials Sexy

If you're buying a new TV, how do you go about it? My guess is that you probably have a look around the shops or internet, find a model you like, then get online to find some reviews of it and decide whether or not to buy based on what you've read. You may well scroll down to the reviews if you're buying something on Amazon, before you click the "Buy" button. If you book a holiday, you're probably straight on Trip Advisor to see what other people- humans just like yourself- have got to say about the hotel.

It is perfectly reasonable behaviour. We understand and respond to the personal experiences of other people- its part of our nature, stitched into our being. Each review is a little story, and humans love stories, especially when they are about other humans.

Its therefore a hugely unfortunate problem that, when it comes to healthcare, stories just aren't good enough. When peoples' lives are hanging in the balance, reviews and testimonials just aren't up to scratch. Here's why:

I have guttate psoriasis. Imagine I go on holiday (alas this is merely a pipedream this year, thanks to what feels like millions of large unexpected bills that seem to keep turning up in my life) and lo and behold, when I return, my psoriasis has cleared up. I conclude that it is definitely the sunshine that has cured it, and proceed to proclaim that I have found the ultimate 100% effective cure for psoriasis.

Is it reasonable that I have come to that conclusion, based only on my own experience? No, not at all. Why have I focused on the sunshine aspect alone? Maybe a week spent relaxing is what has actually cured it. Maybe its because I've changed my diet on holiday and have been eating lots of lovely fresh fruit and vegetables and fish?  Maybe it is because there is a magic ingredient in Sangria which miraculously beats rogue skin cells into submission. What if chlorine in swimming pool water is my skin superhero? Maybe-just maybe- its because guttate psoriasis can be self-limiting, and it has just faded away of its own accord. With just my experience to go on, there is no way I will ever be able to know what it is that has made my condition improve.

What I would need to do to be able to decide is to scale things up. Get as many people as possible with guttate psoriasis, and divide them into at least two groups- one exposed to sunlight, one not. I'd have to try to control the peoples' behaviour as best as I could for the other factors like diet, chlorine exposure, sangria intake, stress etc. Whilst I could never completely control for everything, if the group exposed to sunshine experience a significantly better improvement in their psoriasis, then I could say with more certainty that it is the sunshine that did it rather than anything else.

This is the beauty and elegance of a clinical trial. They are simply the best, slickest, most reliable way we have of teasing out whether a treatment actually does make a difference. They're like an anthology of stories, carefully selected and analysed by researchers in a bid to start finding an answer to a treatment question. Whilst they're not 100% perfect, they're certainly the best sort of information we have at the moment on which to base any decisions about which treatment to choose for which disease, and for which patient.

This is, however, very easy to forget when you actually have to read one. I do not have a mathematically inclined brain, and when faced with tables full of numbers, p values, confidence intervals, hazard ratios, relative and absolute risks etc, my grey matter is usually to be found quivering and wimpering in the corner of my skull. I have to really try hard to focus on the stats and results when reading a clinical trial- its a constant fight to wrench my thoughts back onto the page, when they keep merrily skipping away to think about kittens or bunnies or *that* picture of a minipig wearing red wellies. And I say this as a geeky pharmacist who has undertaken a decent amount of training in how to read a clinical trial. What hope then, does an individual patient or regular joe have of understanding trial data?

A quick glance at pretty much any website selling an 'alternative medicine' and you'll notice there is usually a "Testimonials" page on there. Many other types of healthcare sites also use testimonials to prove their treatment works. They're easy to read, often full of personality, and can really seem to speak to you as a reader. They may seem convincing, but as you've (hopefully) seen from my example above, they simply can't be used to decide if a product works or not. A glossy celebrity story endorsing a product in a magazine is infinitely more sexy than ten pages full of stats and graphs in a medical journal.

Testimonials and reviews are, at first glance, more attractive and more seductive than the more dowdy clinical trial. So what can we do to help the clinical trial apply a bit of lippy, spray some perfume on itself, and don its heels to get out on the town and make people weak at the knees? My short answer is I don't know. Campaigns like International Clinical Trials Day help of course, but at the moment it feels like we're swimming against the tide somewhat. My ultimate dream would be a primetime TV series, fronted by a hunky Brian Cox type. If he can make physics sexy enough to be at the forefront of our entertainment, surely there is some way that we can do the same for one of the best inventions in healthcare? I'd like to get to a place were it's second nature for everyone, whether they be a patients, pharmacist, healthcare professional or general geek, instinctively bypasses testimonials to look for clinical trial evidence instead.

Do you have any ideas? Have you had any really good experiences of explaining clinical trials to patients? Are there any techniques we can use to simplify the stats and make trials more accessible to all? My friend Nancy had a great idea of including a Plain English summary as part of an abstract for every trial. Is there anything else we could do? Let me know, however outlandish your idea, either by commenting, tweeting me (@SparkleWildfire), or dropping me an e-mail at my new shiny sparkly e-mail address healthydoseofskepticism@gmail.com

Hxxx