“It’s not an easy truth to swallow..”

After last week’s excellent programme on The Great Girona Gold Hunt, the BBC 1 Northern Ireland 9pm slot tonight may be a disappointment. Get Well Northern Ireland “examines a one year pilot scheme – the Get Well Scheme – which operated in two clinics in Northern Ireland until March 2008.” That’s the scheme launched by Peter Hain, “a user of complementary medicine [him]self”.. The programme producer, Ronan McCloskey, is quoted here as saying, “Without a doubt the therapies featured in this programme help patients and make them feel better. But who should pay for them?” Those who want to use them I’d suggest. But then I’ve made my position on supernaturally-based medical treatments abundantly clear several times. Coincidentally, in today’s Guardian there is a timely review by Olivia Laing, “a former herbalist”, of two books critical of the alternative therapy scam movement – Rose Shapiro’s Suckers and Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. From the review

Despite the apparent lack of rigorous evidence, complementary medicine has also become increasingly legitimised in the past decade. It is taught in universities, receives £500m a year from the NHS and is recommended by the World Health Organisation. As far as Shapiro is concerned, this is a disgrace. In many cases, she’s right – the five British homeopathic hospitals funded by public money are a debatable use of NHS resources. But who’s to blame? Alongside practitioners, her culprits include the government, the media and, provocatively, consumers themselves.

Updated below the fold.The review continues

Patients seem determined to embrace aura cleansing and Vega testing no matter what sceptics say. This is partly due to a widespread misunderstanding of how the body works, combined with a pervasive sense of toxicity that a media fixated on health does nothing to quell. But it is also due to dissatisfaction with conventional medicine. Singh and Ernst write: ‘It seems as though some doctors delegate empathy to alternative practitioners.’ Their prescription – that doctors increase the average seven-minute consultation – is no substitute for the more substantial appeals of the holistic approach. ‘Alternative medicine knows exactly how to make each user special,’ Shapiro says. ‘In the name of treating the whole person, it wants to know all about you – there is no detail of your life too insignificant to be of interest.’

The implication – that we spend billions each year on what amounts to little more than snake oil because our critical faculties are dulled by the pleasures of having someone listen to us – is deeply uncomfortable and not entirely true. Medicine is an art as much as a science and the sick clearly long for their symptoms to carry more meaning than the prevailing mechanistic model allows.

The patients who seek alternative practitioners are often described by doctors as ‘heartsink’: they suffer from chronic illnesses that respond poorly to conventional treatments or from a constellation of symptoms that are not easily diagnosed or treated. The problem is that, as one doctor told Shapiro, ‘headaches, heartaches, backaches, aching feet, fatigue, anxiety and those vague burning pains in your legs at night – these are the nemeses of real doctors. Many people have these symptoms but the cruel truth is there is no reliable cure for any of them’. It’s not an easy truth to swallow, but where there is no real evidence to the contrary it’s infinitely preferable to the sugared alternative. [added emphasis]

Indeed.

As the BBC article notes, “Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Michael McGimpsey is now assessing the results of the scheme.” Not the results of any scientific trial.

And it’s also worth noting that whereas Peter Hain claimed..

“I am certain, as a user of complementary medicine myself, that this has the potential to improve health substantially.”

..the primary focus of tonight’s documentary appears to be whether or not the scheme reduces the use of prescription drugs.

Boo Armstrong, the director of London-based Get Well UK, which delivered the scheme in Northern Ireland, said the therapies can heal people and save the NHS money.

Let’s see the evidence that the therapies actually “heal people” first.

Rather than continuing down the path of The Un-Enlightenment.

Adds The programme producer, Ronan McCloskey, in the Belfast Telegraph

“We also catch up with Marie Vaughan, a former nurse who lives in Ballymena.

Marie worked within the oncology department of Guy’s Hospital in London before returning to Northern Ireland.

Last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent two operations to remove the tumour. Marie turned down an offer of precautionary chemotherapy.

Marie’s story does not fall under the Get Well Scheme but we felt it important to look at the other side of the ‘combined fields of complementary and alternative medicines’ debate.”

That’s not “the other side” of the debate.

As pauljames noted in the comment zone below.

“a whole programme on pseudoscience without an investigation into placebo effects, the ethical dilemma of lying to patients to make them feel better or the money being made out of quackery?”

Indeed.

Update Don’t take my word for it. You can watch the programme on the iPlayer.

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  • Greenflag

    ‘Patients seem determined to embrace aura cleansing and Vega testing no matter what sceptics say.’

    Chiropractors are another shower of voodoo merchants and yet some people swear by them .

    Others go to Lourdes for the ‘miracle ‘ cure . I used to wonder where the people of Lourdes went to to get cured ?

    People consult their ‘horoscopes’ and are prepared to believe all kinds of mush if it sounds even half way plausible . I suppose if you can get people to believe in an ‘imaginary friend’ then getting them to believe in astrology or vega testing is but a short hop.

    One thing is sure somebody is usually making a lot of money from the poor suckers . Whether selling indulgences , snake oil or the elixir of life there are always those with an eye out for conning the public with or without the latters consent 🙁

  • Rory

    Whenever I have a strange twinge or uncomfortable swelling I avail myself of the healing properties dispensed by the delightful Mlles Fifi and Trixibelle – “therapists for discerning mature gentlemen” as their literature has it. I must say that their treatment has ever proven to be most efficacious and I always come away feeling a great sense of relief – indeed “Relief Guaranteed” is another one their promises.

    Unfortunately their services are not yet available on the NHS, however this exclusion does serve to keep out the riff-raff. There is little chance of running into Lord Archer or some LibDem MP.

  • cynic

    Where does all the material cleansed from the auras go to?

    …… is it dumped illegally?

    …… do they have a licence?

    …… does the Council provide a special bin for it?

  • Pete Baker

    That was one of the worst examples of propaganda on behalf of an individual organisation, in this case Get Well UK, that I have seen in some time. And just as the Health Minister is due to decide on future funding for this scam scheme.

    The argument put forward by that organisation’s director at the end was along the lines of – This is supposed to be a democracy, why can’t we have the treatments we want?

    Well, because publicly-funded medical treatment is not democratic for a start. It’s provided on a best possible practice basis.

    Now, about that evidence..

    And don’t start me on the absence in the programme of any questioning of the ‘reasoning’ behind any of those supposed treatments.

  • pauljames

    Cheers BBC NI, a whole programme on pseudoscience without an investigation into placebo effects, the ethical dilemma of lying to patients to make them feel better or the money being made out of quackery? Stick to dog fighting in the future.

  • Rapunsel

    Pete, share your sentiments. Heard Ronan McCloskey on radio Ulster this morning and to be honest he was a lot more sceptical than the presenters who were falling overthemselves to express wonder in the fact that a woman claimed to be cured from cancer through complementary medicine. I was n’t too sure if they actually believed any of it or were suspending journalistic integrity by failing to properly address the issue given the fact that the female cancer patient clearly had had a difficult time and sure what harm does this stuff do! My own feeling is that this is potentially dangerous as some people might start ignoring scientific medicine. I’d say that if they do we’d have a lot more cancer deaths and a lot more pain and suffering

  • Pete Baker

    Rapunsel

    The cancer patient was an interesting case for the programme to chose to highlight.

    She turned down chemo on the basis that it only provided an additional 5.5% chance of staying cancer free for 10 years on top of the 80% chance that she already had.

    That’s a personal judgement call as far as I’m concerned. A point made by the doctor treating her.

    But using her as an example in this programme does run the risks you’ve mentioned.

  • Pete Baker

    It’s also worth pointing out that the cancer patient had already undergone surgery to remove the tumours – hence the doctor’s assessment of an 80% chance of being cancer free for 10 years.

    Of course, as the programme producer reveals in the Belfast Telegraph, that example was intended to show what wouldn’t be available on the Get Well Scam Scheme.

    Under the year-long Get Well Scheme, patients could access a range of therapies, it was hoped, that would reduce their need for medication.

    They included homeopathy, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic and finally aromatherapy and reflexology. These are defined as being ‘complementary’; meaning they would be integrated into the health service and used by referral from the patient’s GP.

    This is distinct from ‘alternative’ therapies which we show in filming a former nurse from Ballymena who, after a cancer diagnosis, turned down chemotherapy in favour of vitamins and minerals.

    These were not available on the Get Well Scheme and their use, especially with conditions such as cancer, is viewed as highly controversial.

  • Pete Baker

    Pauljames

    “a whole programme on pseudoscience without an investigation into placebo effects, the ethical dilemma of lying to patients to make them feel better or the money being made out of quackery?”

    Indeed.

  • Pete Baker

    It gets worse.

    According to that Belfast Telegraph article, the cancer patient was included because they “felt it important to look at the other side” of the debate.

    *shakes head*

  • Nestor Makhno

    It seems to me that most of these people want a cure for the human condition. Unfortunately, it’s not (and never will be) available on the NHS…

    Just pop into one of the many ‘health’ stores across Belfast and listen to (mainly) middle age women being offered junk advice by completely unregulated shop-keepers. It’s both sad and infuriating.

    I’m not entirely sure where this comes from but I think it will only get worse. Science, economics, medicine and technology are all so advanced now that very few people can understand the complex train of research and reason that lies behind. So they’ve given up.

    How does an ipod work? No idea. Or a PET scanner? Clueless. Hedge funds? Draws a blank. Will the creation of a Higgs Boson at CERN in the next few months destroy the entire planet? Pass. What are the mechanism behind climate change? Vague idea but can’t really explain.

    All this seems like magic to most people – so they latch on to more simplistic stories peddled by people such as the alternative therapy scammers (most of whom I suspect, fall for this nonsense themselves).

    This is going to get much worse. Scientific and technical advances are more or less exponential. In thirty years even today’s cutting edge will seem run of the mill. I predict it will be accompanied by an even greater retreat from reason by the vast majority of people.

  • Pete Baker

    Nestor

    That’s a possibility. Although I’d caution on the futuring.

    There’s a responsibility on programme makers to ensure they understand their subject, or find someone who does [NB not someone with a vested interest at risk], and make sure they get it right.

    Clearly, in this case, they didn’t.