A question of regulation

By Keir Liddle

The regulation of complementary and alternative medicine is a controversial topic in skeptical circles with some viewing the role of professional bodies, such as the Society of Homeopaths, as providing nothing more than a rubber stamp approach to regulation. Providing practitioners with a worthless kite-mark that does nothing to ensure professional and ethical conduct and simply generates the illusion of such.

There is little evidence to suggest that associations and organisations of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners can reign in the worst excess of their members who continue to promote bogus treatments and, in some cases, highly dangerous advice to their customers. At the same time there is little inclination in many quarters for the regulation of alternative medicine to come under the umbrella of medical regulators such as the  Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) or the General Medical Council (GMC). As there are fears that doing so would provide practitioners of non-evidence based treatments and therapies a veneer of respectability that would allow them to dodge important questions regarding their effectiveness.

Recently Edzard Ernst, the worlds only professor of complementary and alternative medicine, raised concerns in the Guardian about the dangers of chiropractic treatment as the adverse effects of treatment are often not properly reported in medical trials. Ernst team collated and analysed data from 60 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of chiropractic that took part between 2000 and 2011. Of these 60 trials 29 neglected to mention any adverse effects of the treatment and 31 reported them. However of those 31 trials 16 reported that the adverse effects had not occurred during the study.

Gimpyblog has recorded many more incidents of unethical and poorly conducted “research” into alternative medicine perhaps most worryingly the case of Jeremy Sherr, who was a fellow of the Society of Homeopaths, who attempted to “trial” homeopathy for AIDs and Malaria in Africa. Not only was Sherr a fellow of the Society of Homeopaths it transpired that they were funding his “trials” through their Homeopathic Action Trust. Gimpy has also revealed that institutions rec0gnised by the Society of Homeopaths have supported projects such as the Maun Homeopathy clinic in Botswana who also purport to be able to treat AIDS with homeopathy. Hilary Fairclough is the homeopath who runs the Maun Homeopathy Clinic in Botswana and has given talks organised by the society of homeopaths.

The case brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association will be one familiar to skeptics where Simon was sued for stating that the BCA happily promoted bogus (by which he meant non-evidence based) treatments. A case that has done much to advance the cause of libel reform in the UK but also highlights the problems with allowing complementary and alternative medicine to remain regulated by it’s “professional bodies”. It seems fair to suggest that these professional bodies are more interested in protecting the interests of their members than they are in protecting members of the public from harm.

When it comes to the issue of regulation there are many examples of harm arising from treatments not simply being ineffective but by allowing untrained and sometimes unscrupulous individuals to practice using the faux respectability of “health practitioner” to damage their customers.

There is the case of Hellfried Sartori who promoted an alternative cancer therapy that led to the deaths of four people, there are cases of chiropractors making wild claims about what they can and can’t treat and committing insurance fraud and there are cases of indecent assault being perpetuated by alternative medicine practitioners as well as alternative medicine being used as a front for trafficking in the sex trade. There are countless other cases where alternative medicine has caused harm but these cases raise the question of whether regulation would at least provide some level of safety for those who choose to undergo unproven treatments.

Skeptics should perhaps consider throwing their support behind attempts to regulate alternative medicine to try and tame it’s worst excesses.

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