Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments (1)

Acupuncture Doesn’t Work, Believers Ignore Evidence

steve_bwThe primary goal of science-based medicine (SBM) is to connect the practice of medicine to the best currently available science. This is similar to evidence-based medicine (EBM), although we quibble about the relative roles of evidence vs prior plausibility. In a recent survey 86% of Americans said they thought that science education was “absolutely essential” or “very important” to the healthcare system. So there seems to be general agreement that science is a good way to determine which treatments are safe and work and which ones are not safe or don’t work.

The need for SBM also stems from an understanding of human frailty – there are a host of psychological effects and intellectual pitfalls that tend to lead us to wrong conclusions.  Even the smartest and best-meaning among us can be lead astray by the failure to recognize a subtle error in logic or perception. In fact, coming to a reliable conclusion is hard work, and is always a work in progress.

There are also huge pressures at work that value things other than just the most effective healthcare. Industry, for example, is often motivated by profit. Institutions and health care providers may be motivated by the desire for prestige in addition to profits. Insurance companies are motivated by cost savings. Everyone is motivated by a desire to have the best health possible – we all want treatments that work safely, often more so than the desire to be logical or consistent. And often personal or institutional ideology comes into play – we want health care to validate our belief systems.

These conflicting motives create a disconnect in the minds and behaviors of many people. They pay lip service to science-based medicine, but are good at making juicy rationalizations to justify what they want to be true rather than what the science supports. We all do this to some degree – but, in my opinion, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a cultural institution that is built upon these rationalizations.  It is formalized illogic and anti-science conceals as science under a mountain of rationalizations.

Some recent news items and reports dealing with acupuncture demonstrate this disconnect quite well.

The BMJ

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently published a review of acupuncture studies in the treatment of chronic pain. Like most other reviews of acupuncture studies, the authors were not impressed. They concluded:

A small analgesic effect of acupuncture was found, which seems to lack clinical relevance and cannot be clearly distinguished from bias. Whether needling at acupuncture points, or at any site, reduces pain independently of the psychological impact of the treatment ritual is unclear.

After decades of study and hundred of clinical trials, this remains the state of acupuncture research.  The best studies continue to show an unclear effect, which cannot be separated from bias – which of course is the point of clinical trials. In other words, the signal cannot be separated from the noise. The most parsimonious interpretation of this fact is that there is no significant signal – acupuncture does not work.

But supporters of acupuncture prefer to go through a litany of rationalizations rather than acknowledge that simple fact (more on this later).

It was also recently announced that the BMJ group will be adding a new journal: BMJ Acupuncture. That’s right, an entire journal dedicated to studying (read “promoting”) acupuncture.  The press release notes:

Acupuncture in Medicine is a quarterly title, which aims to build the evidence base for acupuncture.

I thought the purpose of research was to discover if a treatment works, not to build a case for it.

BMJ is a strange journal – it is generally of high quality but seems to have a blind spot for certain CAM modalities, like acupuncture. While it will publish critical reviews, like the one above, it also has published some low quality positive reviews – such as this one of acupuncture and IVF (in vitro fertilization).  The review glosses over the disparity in study quality and location. Other reviews published around the same time showed no effect from acupuncture in IVF.

And the best individual studies to date show no effect. In fact, the most recent study showed that the placebo acupuncture group had slightly higher pregnancy rates by some measures than the acupuncture group (while other measures showed no difference). Again – the most parsimonious interpretation of this study is the null hypothesis – acupuncture does not work in IVF. But proponents twisted themselves into logical pretzels and offered up the astounding rationalization that placebo acupuncture must have some real effect.

To be clear, I am not against journals that specialize in one area, or practitioners that specialize in one form of treatment. Specialization is essential to deal with the modern complexity of medicine. However, we must recognize the significant risk of specialization – and that is the fallacy that is often summarized as follows: if your only tool is a hammer then every problem will look like a nail. It is unlikely that a journal or practitioner dedicated to acupuncture will ever reach the conclusion that acupuncture is a dead end and science-based medicine should move on. As an extension of this, specialty journals and specialist should follow well-established modalities. Forming a specialty journal dedicated to an unproven and dubious modality is problematic, to say the least.

More Rationalizations

A recent Washington Post article observes in its headline: “Millions embrace acupuncture, despite thin evidence.” It seems this reporter, Ellen Edwards, has grasped the essential disconnect, although she does not sufficiently explore an answer to the implied question – why? Why do so many accept acupuncture despite an enduring absence of scientific evidence? Ironically, the press has much to do with it. They are often complicit in misrepresenting the facts, and abetting the rationalizations that are necessary for those who should know better to continue to promote acupuncture despite the lack of evidence.

Some professional organizations are also complicit. The article notes, for example:

The American Medical Association takes no position specifically on acupuncture; the AMA groups it with other alternative treatments, saying “there is little evidence to confirm the safety or efficacy of most alternative therapies.” It says “well-designed, stringently controlled research” is needed to evaluate its efficacy.

Now, the AMA is not the best place to go for position papers on specific scientific questions in medicine. But if they are going to bother having any position, it should be better informed. They say that research is needed, giving the impression that there isn’t already a large body of research to inform out opinion about whether acupuncture works or not.

The notion that more research is needed is one of the most common rationalizations. That allows someone to put off forever concluding that their pet modality does not work – simply make the case for more research, which is easy to make sound like it’s a good idea. And of course anyone against more research must be closed-minded.  For example, the story relates (standard disclaimer – I am aware that experts are often quoted out of context by journalists, so keep that in mind, but for the purposes of this post I will take the quotes at face value):

In 2007, NCCAM spent about $9.1 million on acupuncture research. While more is planned, Brent Bauer, an internist at the Mayo Clinic and director of its complementary and alternative medicine program, said the research is in its “toddlerhood.”

Nice touch – “toddlerhood.”  That’s just a cute way of saying that more research is needed and you can comfortably ignore any current negative research. If the assessment were fair, then it could be justified. But we have already had several fairly sophisticated placebo-acupuncture controlled trials. This represents reasonably mature clinical research. I suspect
Bauer just does not like the fact that these best studies (like the IVF study above) are generally negative. I wonder – if these studies were positive would he still think they were imature and could be ignored?

Linda Lee, a gastroenterologist who is director of Johns Hopkins’s new Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, is quoted as saying:

“We have this double standard. We are completely comfortable using pharmacological therapies that have not been subjected to clinical trials for the purposes we use them, but we are super suspicious of alternative therapies that haven’t been tested with randomized placebo trials. From a research point of view, I understand the criticism. But we physicians are in the healing business, and we have to go beyond the pharmacological solutions to understand the whole person,” she said. “Acupuncturists start with the whole person.”

Ah – the “holistic” gambit.  This is just another rationalization to distract people from the uncomfortable fact, that she acknowledged. From a “research point of view” means “I understand that the best quality scientific evidence is negative.” And “we..are in the healing business” means “but I want to believe in this anyway.”

The double standard is also an incredible claim, because the opposite is true. SBM advocates want a single standard. What Dr. Lee is actually referring to is prior plausibility – scientific practitioners are more accepting of treatments that are biologically plausible, and are appropriately skeptical of treatments that are extremely implausible.  It is also a tu quoque fallacy – we advocate high standards of science for all treatments, even plausible ones. If some doctors uses drugs unscientifically, that does not justify chucking science whenever it conflicts with our beliefs and desires.

It is, in fact, the CAM proponents who want a double standard. Imagine if after hundreds of studies the best a drug could do for any indication is a weak effect that is likely just placebo – the signal cannot be separated from the noise. Imagine  a pharmaceutical company making the exact same rationalizations to put its failed drug on the market anyway that acupuncture proponents make for acupuncture.

The article concludes, as most do, with a positive anecdote from a believer – Elise Feingold:

“I decided to leave my science brain aside,” she said. “I felt it had helped other people, and it might help me. I don’t know how it works, but it’s got 4,000 years of Chinese medicine behind it.”

She begins with what amounts to saying that anecdotal evidence is more compelling that rigorous science. This, of course, makes no sense. The whole point of scientific rigor is for evidence to be more objective and reliable – to control for any many variables as possible. Anecdotes are unreliable because they do not control for any variables. Proponents of acupuncture are happy to cite scientific evidence when they think it supports their beliefs, but then will chuck science in favor of low quality anecdotes as needed.

Feingold finishes with the commonplace appeal to antiquity.  The premise of this argument is that a treatment that has no real effect could not survive for thousands of years. History proves that this premise is false (see blood letting), and it also profoundly underestimates the human capacity for self-deception and therefore the need for scientific controls.

Conclusion

There is still no compelling evidence that there is any real effect to acupuncture.  It didn’t have to turn out that way, but that is the way the scientific chips fell. The treatment also lacks plausibility (although I usually point out that something is happening, unlike homeopathy, and so there is the physical possibility of an effect), and in medicine you only get two strikes. No evidence and no plausibility means that you’re out.

But the disconnect continues. Proponents keep pretending that there is compelling evidence, or it has not been properly studied yet, or it does not have to be studied because historical anecdotes are enough – whichever argument suits the moment. Meanwhile the media keep breathlessly telling us that acupuncture is gaining ground, while the evidence is standing still.

The premise of SBM is that support and resources should follow scientific support. In the world of CAM, however, support follows belief, and the science seems to be an afterthought or, worse, an obstacle.

**This post was originally published at Science Based Medicine.**


You may also like these posts

Read comments »


One Response to “Acupuncture Doesn’t Work, Believers Ignore Evidence”

  1. Acupuncture works for many things. I know this, as I write about medicine for a living and have gone through hundreds of studies about the subject. The problem is that it's claimed to work for many things it doesn't work for, which results in many studies showing it's ineffective, because it is. It makes no more sense conducting a review of acupuncture for all types of chronic pain – no more than it would make sense reviewing the use of NSAIDs for chronic pain and concluding they don't work, because they don't work against e.g. neuropathy.

    It is sad that you're not capable of doing unbiased research. Of course, unbiased research does not make for provocative headlines.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Better Health » Senate Healthcare Bill Amendment Allocates Your Tax Dollars To Quacks

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

How To Make Inpatient Medical Practice Fun Again: Try Locum Tenens Work

It s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction burn out and even suicide. In fact some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was…

Read more »

See all book reviews »