Today’s post is a guest contribution from a Canadian pharmacist who is writing under the pseudonym Sara Russell:
Every morning I open up Facebook and expect to see the usual sharing of my friends’ latest adventures in pseudoscience, but it wasn’t until this morning that I felt compelled to write about something. A friend had posted this video asking for feedback. Continue reading
It’s Family Day weekend in several provinces in Canada, and President’s Day weekend in the United States. Here’s what I’ve been reading:
Smarties: As effective as homeopathy
For a blog established to examine the role of science in pharmacy practice, I’ve given a disproportionate amount of attention to homeopathy. Which is frustrating, because homeopathy is not something that pharmacists, or the pharmacy profession, should even need to discuss. Unlike herbal remedies, and some supplements, there isn’t even any science to discuss. As pseudoscience goes, homeopathy is the worst of the worst – it is a belief system, nothing more. If homeopathy actually worked as claimed, it would mean that all we know about biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology was wrong. Not a little wrong, but completely wrong. Which would then mean that all we know about science-based medicine is wrong.
In short, homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system, based on the idea that “like cures like” (which is simply a form of magical thinking) involving successive dilutions of products in water, like Berlin Wall, “Mobile Phone (900mHz)“, and even the light reflecting off Saturn. These substances are believed to have medicinal effects, and the dilutions are believed to increase, not decrease, the potency of the final product. But the dilutions in homeopathy are so great you’re not even getting any Berlin Wall. Think of putting one drop of a substance into a container of water. Only that container is 131 light-years in diameter. That’s the “30C” dilution. Homeopaths believe that the water molecules retains a “memory” of the original substance (while conveniently forgetting all the other products it has come in contact with.) The final remedy is diluted so so completely that most products on store shelves don’t contain a single molecule of the ingredient listed on the label. After all that dilution, the water is dripped on tablets of sucrose and lactose: They are, as a final product, sugar pills. Chemically indistinguishable, and as medicinal as a box of Smarties.
Not surprisingly, a review of clinical trials, when you control for biases, confirms what grade-school numeracy and scientific literacy would suggest – homeopathic products are no more effective than a comparable placebo. Yet frustratingly, regulators in Canada and in other countries have given legitimacy to homeopathy by registering both the medication and their purveyors – risking the perception that homeopathy may in fact offer medicinal value. And whether it’s due to ignorance of homeopathy, or indifference to the unfounded ideas of “alternative” health, legitimate health professionals continue to give a pass to homeopathy, taking a “What’s the harm” attitude. Yet harms can result: Continue reading
Given their visibility in the pharmacy, a recurring topic of this blog are the category of products deemed “natural health products”. My philosophy towards their uses has changed over the years, and what was an “evidence-based” approach is now firmly a “science-based” approach. A central principle to science-based medicine or pharmacy is that all health interventions and treatments should be evaluated based on a single, scientific standard. One of the biggest successes of the alternative medicine industry, worldwide, has been the embedding of different regulatory standards for the evaluation and approval of so-called “non-drug” products such as supplements, herbal products, and non-scientific treatment systems like homeopathy or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The implications cannot be overstated: this different and lower standard is now so firmly entrenched in most health systems that few seem to question its rationale, or consider the consequences. As a practicing pharmacist I spent the first decade of my career working within this regulatory framework without ever stepping back to question why we regulate some products differently. Comparing two countries illustrates my point: Continue reading
I’ve been blogging for over three years and Cold-fX, a popular Canadian ginseng supplement, was one of the first topics I tackled. The omnipresent Canadian advertising, huge pharmacy presence, and impressive-sounding efficacy claims made it an ideal case study. Perhaps not surprisingly, when I reviewed the data, the results didn’t hold up: I concluded that in a best case scenario, you’d need to take Cold-fX for four cold seasons (about 16 months) to prevent a single cold. And while the manufacturer claimed that Cold-fX could actually stop colds once they’d started, I noted that there was no published evidence to back up that claim. I concluded there was was little rationale to justify supplementing with Cold-fX. The published clinical evidence wasn’t persuasive, and the supplement is not inexpensive. The smarter strategy? Washing your hands regularly is clinically proven, and it’s a lot less expensive.
Since my review, the popularity of Cold-fX has continued unabated. And the manufacturer has branched out into all kinds of supplements: Cell -fX (shark cartilage), Cold Sore fX (bee propolis), Remember-fX (also ginseng), Memory-fX (more ginseng), and Immunity-fX (ginseng again, but with with reishi mushroom). Skeptical yet? So was CBC’s Marketplace, which scrutinized Cold-FX in a episode broadcast earlier this month. (I can’t embed the video, so you’ll need to watch the video at the CBC’s site.) For those of you that haven’t seen Marketplace, it’s a consumer affairs/consumer advocacy show that takes on medical topics from time-to-time. Last year it did an excellent investigation of the elaborate placebo system known as homeopathy. The producers are clearly science and consumer advocates, making natural health products low-hanging fruit. So Cold-fX was a fitting topic. Their investigation focused on several issues: Continue reading
Online discussions on the merits of alternative medicine can get quite heated. And its proponents, given enough time, will inevitably cite the same drug as “evidence” of the failings of science. Call it Gavura’s Law, with apologies to Mike Godwin:
As an online discussion on the effectiveness of alternative medicine grows longer, the probability that thalidomide will be cited approaches one.
A recent commenter to this blog, regarding the homeopathic product Traumeel, is typical:
If the scientific method is all that separates an accepted claim, ie Thalidomide, Vioxx, Bextra, Darvon, from mere anecdote, of what benefit is the Science?
As a non-scientist consumer, I’ll take the anecdotes and my own experience. Thank you.
If scientists want to be taken seriously, they must stop selling themselves to the highest bidder becoming corporate whores without a shred of decency. To my mind, that’s how the claims for Thalidomide, Vioxx, Bextra, Darvon were accepted, making the scientific method utterly worthless.
To this commenter, “science has been wrong before.” And that invalidates science, and apparently validates homeopathy. It’s a fallacious argument. But does thalidomide actually represent a failing of science-based medicine? No, not even close. It’s so wrong, it’s not even wrong. Thalidomide is good example of the importance of science-based medicine and why allowing alternative medicine to be sold in the absence of good science is a concern. Continue reading
A possible pharmacy homeopathy label suggested by Le Canard Noir
This weekend has seen the “10-23 challenge” occur, where science advocates worldwide are “overdosing” on homeopathic products, to demonstrate that they contain no active ingredients and have no therapeutic effects. This builds on last year’s event in the UK and Australia, which was a success: absolutely nothing happened to any participant. This year, overdoses have taken place across Canada and around the world. As part of the challenge, this weekend James Randi reiterated a promise to pay $1 million to anyone that can prove homeopathy works. Here’s some excerpts from that announcement, where he points to pharmacies as being part of the problem: Continue reading
Working in pharmacies where supplements are sold alongside traditional (over-the-counter) medications, I’m regularly astonished at the different perceptions consumers can have about the relative efficacy and safety of different types of products. Once, speaking with a customer about a medical condition she wanted to treat, I indicated that there were no effective non-prescription therapies — she needed to see a physician for access to an effective treatment by prescription — and I gestured behind the counter. “Back there?!” she pointed. “That’s where you keep the stuff that kills people! I want something natural!” Suggesting that my patients with heart disease or HIV had a somewhat different perspective, I tried (unsuccessfully) to talk her out of a questionable-looking supplement (Hint: avoid anything from a company with a P.O. box as a mailing address.) This appeal to nature, combined with a perception that natural products are safe, and conventional drugs are unsafe, is pervasive. Continue reading
One of my earliest lessons as a pharmacist working in the “real world” was that customers didn’t always act the way I expected. Parents of sick children frequently fell into this category — and the typical vignette went like this for me:
- Parent has determined that their child is sick, and needs some sort of over-the-counter medicine.
- Parent asks pharmacist for advice selecting a product from the dozens on the shelves.
- Pharmacist uses the opportunity to provide science-based advice, and assures parent that no drug therapy is necessary.
- Parent directly questions the validity of this advice, and may ask about the merits of a specific product they have already identified.
- Pharmacist explains efficacy and risk of the product, and provides general non-drug symptom management suggestions.
- Parent thanks pharmacist, selects product despite advice, and walks to the front of the store to pay.
In many ways, a pharmacy purchase mirrors the patient-physician interaction that ends with a prescription being written — it’s what feels like the logical end to the consultation, and without it, feels incomplete. It’s something that I’m observing more and more frequently when advising parents about cough and cold products for children.
As has been repeatedly pointed out on this blog, homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system, with most remedies diluted so greatly that not a single molecule of the original material remains. The final product sold to consumers is quite literally, water – drops of which are dried on sucrose or lactose tablets. The fact that homeopathy has not been shown to be more effective than placebo should surprise no-one: it is a placebo, and the positive effects reported are placebo effects.
Because there are no medicinal ingredients, there is no way to take a typical homeopathic remedy and, by testing it, determine which remedy it’s supposed to be. All you would find would be sugar. That’s why Health Canada doesn’t require any post-manufacturing quality testing of the remedies it deems “safe and effective” – there’s nothing that can be objectively measured. So whether it’s lead, rabbit vagina (really), or the liver and heart of a duck, once they’re diluted enough, there’s nothing to distinguish one homeopathic remedy from another. Yet each approved product is granted a unique license number by Health Canada.
Homeopathy’s lack of active ingredients gives the products a reasonable safety profile. After all, a product can’t cause side effects, if it doesn’t cause any effects at all. So you can take plutonium, dilute it enough, and you won’t get radiation poisoning. But when a homeopathic remedy isn’t diluted enough, you can be exposed to the initial substance, which can be toxic. Enter Hyland’s Teething Tablets, and a recent warning from Health Canada: Continue reading