In the last issue I discussed how quackery can be practised by New Zealand doctors with impunity, “if they do so honestly and in good faith.” Alaska has a similar clause which only disciplines maverick doctors if they harm their patients. In fact, the latest NCAF newsletter outlines how a Dr Rowen has been appointed to the state medical board after “curing” the governor’s wife of lumbago by extracting one of her teeth. The link between the tooth and the back was made by an electro-acupuncture circuit using a Vega machine.
Dr Rowan also practises chelation, homeopathy and is described as “anti-fluoridation, anti-aluminium cookware, and anti-dental amalgam.” The Alaskan State Medical Association has strongly protested and one medical board member has resigned.
More on Bands of Hope
Sea Bands are available from NZ Pharmacies as well as Elekiban which is another form used for musculoskeletal complaints. As outlined in Skeptic 26, these are acupressure devices which have no scientific effect other than placebo. I was interested to read that the Institute of Naval Medicine (INM) had tested Sea Bands because on my recent overseas trip I spent a day a day at INM having a look at their research programs on Hypothermia and Diving Medicine.
Acupressure is an equally false derivative of acupuncture which works through a combination of the placebo effect and suggestion. Having written a truth kit on acupuncture I was alarmed to read that the Medical Acupuncture Society of NZ (MASNZ) is setting up a register of medical acupuncturists (150 hours training minimum)(NZ Doctor 21/1/93). Since acupuncture has no proven basis this is totally unnecessary, rather like setting up an appreciation society for the emperor’s new clothes.
As a former acupuncturist, I can teach anyone to be a safe and confident acupuncturist in about one hour. Perhaps I should give a demonstration at our next conference in the style of Dr Bill Morris and his vivid demonstration of homeopathy.
Pharmaceuticals Around the World
I have long held the belief that NZ doctors tend to overprescribe drugs. While working in general practice myself, I was often aware of pressure from patients to prescribe drugs. However, until now I haven’t come across any comparative data from other western countries. A survey of 495 randomly chosen Australian GPs (Patient Management Nov 1992) found that a prescription item was issued for every consultation (a reduction from 1974 when 136 prescription items were issued per 100 consultations!)
In NZ our annual drug bill is about $600 million, or $185 per head, per annum. My family of four definitely does not consume $740 worth of drugs in a year! Some people must be consuming a lot of drugs. British doctors are described as “low prescribers of medicines” yet their costs were roughly the same at $165 per head per annum.(The Lancet Vol 340 August 8, 1992 page 364). Patients expect drugs, and doctors want to help their patients, so it is not surprising that prescription rates are high. The writing of a prescription is often a convenient way to end a consultation.
One of the major problems for third world countries is getting cheap, effective drugs which are truly necessary. Multinational drug companies continue to cynically exploit these countries by marketing both dangerous and useless drugs. In a letter to The Lancet (Vol 339: Feb 22, 1992 page 498), a Pakistani doctor explained how a child died after being given drops containing an anticholinergic drug and phenobarbitone. Such a preparation has no scientific medical indication and its use in NZ would not be allowed.
A survey from Peshawar (reported in The Lancet Vol 338:August 17, 1991 p438) found that 90% of general practitioners were using antibiotics and anti-diarrhoeals to treat diarrhoea instead of using the correct treatment of oral rehydration therapy.
In Bangladesh, (GP Weekly International 2/12/92), hundreds of children have been injured or killed by cheap brands of paracetamol containing toxic ethylene glycol.
Datura is a drug which is commonly abused by drug addicts. It contains atropine, which in high doses causes hyperactivity and hallucinations. Incredibly, cigarettes containing datura are licenced for the treatment of asthma in France because “many old people rely on the treatment because they don’t believe modern methods help them.” This is a classic example of the need to have a rational, scientifically-based pharmaceutical industry. Datura-containing cigarettes would not be allowed here (we used to have cannabis cigarettes on prescription up until the 1920s!) and their persistence in France is based on delusion, placebo effect and anecdotal reports of efficacy. (New Scientist 22 August 1992).
Drug treatment can also be irrational when it is used for a condition which has no clinical basis. On the European continent there is a widely held belief that low blood pressure is associated with specific symptoms and is a pathological state requiring treatment. There is no basis for this belief, because complaints of faintness and fatigue are made as often by patients with a normal blood pressure.
A doctor whose daughter fainted on a hot day (BMJ Vol 299, 18 Nov 1989, p1284) reported that a French doctor prescribed a proprietary preparation called Tensophoril which contains the following ingredients: dopamine hydrochloride 15 mg, boric acid 15 mg, amylobarbitone 15 mg, and ascorbic acid 250 mg.
This sort of combination has been rightly criticised as “blunderbuss” drug treatment. Dopamine is inactive when given by mouth; boric acid is toxic and should not be taken by mouth; amylobarbitone is a long acting barbiturate sedative and the ascorbic acid dose is that which would be found in about 5 oranges. Fortunately the doctor’s daughter elected not to take the treatment and recovered fully.
I was much more impressed with a letter (The Lancet Vol 340: August 15 1992, p432) which detailed how Israel dealt with homeopathy. Drug registration required proof of efficacy and this was still not forthcoming after three years. Unfortunately the new legislation did not apply to raw materials and homeopathic preparations were able to be imported as such. The author regretted that “the compromise is not entirely satisfactory in that scientific assessment of efficacy cannot be applied.”
The situation in Germany is hardly credible. Drug licencing does not depend on clinical trials, but on anecdotal evidence supplied by medical practitioners, many of whom are paid by the same companies whose products they are endorsing. This is hardly surprising when 7 out of 10 general practitioners practise alternative medicine.
For example, the Federal Health Office (BGA) was forced to licence a totally useless product containing “1 g loess soil” for the treatment of diarrhoea, because “German law does not define the term efficacy.”
Another useless drug is Arteparon, an extract of bovine lung used for the treatment of osteoarthritis when given by injection. The drug is licenced because the courts have determined that “the efficacy of old drugs must not be judged by modern scientific standards.” Arteparon causes severe allergic reactions, a fact not recognized by the courts because “proof of causality beyond any doubt was needed for each case of adverse reaction.” The judges obviously overlooked the irony of demanding a higher standard of proof of side effects than of efficacy. The cost of these crazy decisions is a huge drain on the German health system. One quarter of the DM20.7 billion spent annually on pharmaceuticals is for useless drugs.
I have no idea whether our own drug lists contain either questionable or useless drugs and these reports have prompted me to have a browse through the GP’s pharmacopoeia New Ethicals. Watch this space!
While overseas I collected a number of articles worthy of skeptical attention. Although a confirmed Francophile, I wonder whether they have any effective organised groups of skeptics. Homeopathy is part of mainstream medicine and astrology is big business.
Thallasotherapie is described as a treatment modality using seawater and its products. Patients (or, in newspeak, clients) can either float in seawater or apply heated mud made from seaweed. Obese subjects will be delighted to know that their tissues can be “deflated by various jets and massages.”
It is claimed that elements such as magnesium and calcium are able to “get into human tissues” and “engender the same consequences as a hoemeopathic treatment: stronger immune system and stimulation of cells.” In fact, human skin is relatively impermeable and certainly does not behave like a semipermeable membrane. Essentially this therapy can be carried out for nothing in the privacy of your own home by having a long soak in a hot bath. If you feel so inclined, toss in a handful of seaweed.
More on RSI
There has been a lot written on this subject, but so far little written to explore alternative explanations for these spurious symptoms which are essentially a conversion disorder (well described in basic psychology texts).
Whole forests have ended up as publications on ergonomics and an army of occupational physicians continue to pontificate over the delusion of RSI. It is therefore refreshing to read letters (Medical Journal of Australia Vol 157, Sep 21 1992, page 427) from skeptical occupational physicians who have both correctly diagnosed this condition as a conversion disorder and correctly treated it by “helping patients sort out their personal, social, family and financial problems.”
Even More on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
In Skeptic 21 I summarised the key research in this area, which does not support any infectious cause and shows clearly that the condition is a somatisation disorder.
If any readers are interested in further reading on this subject, there is a very good article in Patient Management Nov 1992, p13 by Robert Loblay. He reviews the historical development of immunology and demonstrates conclusively how history tends to repeat itself. For example, neurasthenia has been resurrected as chronic fatigue syndrome.
Many symptoms which people present to their doctors are often functional (somatisation disorders) and have no basis in serious disease. Some doctors have difficulty in accepting their own limitations in this respect, or the existence of psychological disorders, and it is easy for these practitioners to seek “magic” solutions such as acupuncture, homeopathy and dietary manipulations.
Psychological disorders cannot be explored within the context of the traditional five-minute NZ consultation and it is hardly surprising that alternative medical practitioners have more success when they give the patient one or two hours of their undivided attention (itself a form of psychotherapy).
This is an intravenous treatment with a cocktail of vitamins and the drug EDTA, which is believed to chelate calcium which has been deposited in atheromatous plaques. Atheroma (Greek for porridge!) is an ageing process leading to fatty deposits in arteries (accelerated by smoking, high blood pressure, excessive dietary fat and diabetes) leading to coronary artery disease (CAD) and peripheral vascular disease (PVD). Poor blood supply through the narrowed vessels leads to chest pain in the case of CAD and painful legs in the case of PVD.
There is a proper double blind placebo controlled trial of chelation therapy for PVD currently under way in Dunedin Hospital. A similar study in America (Journal of Internal Medicine 1992, pp 231-267) showed no difference between chelation and placebo treatment. I hope to do a similar study of chelation treatment for CAD. We await the outcome.