Should complementary medicine centres be more critical?

Unsurprisingly, Edzard Ernst, the controversial ‘scourge’ of CAM, says they should. And not only that, he has challenged CAM research groups to prove him wrong.

The debacle started last week when the professor told journalists at the Science Media Centre, London, that although more research into alternative medicines was now taking place; “too much of the research on complementary therapies is done by people who have already made up their minds” and “none of the centres is anywhere near critical enough.”

“If you go to any of these research units and find out what their pet therapy is—let’s say it’s homeopathy—and then you do a very simple Medline search, you are very likely to find their results are 100% positive, that homeopathy works for everything in the hands of these investigators. Then there must be something wrong, because homeopathy works for precisely nothing.”

These comments, which were published in the BMJ, sent ripples through the CAM community and prompted Ernst to post a direct response on his blog yesterday, in which he elaborated on his previous comments.

“Any critical evaluation of alternative medicine has to yield its fair share of negative conclusions about the value of alternative medicine. If it fails to do that, one would need to assume that most or all alternative therapies generate more good than harm – and very few experts (who are not proponents of alternative medicine) would assume that this can possibly be the case…”

“A researcher or a research group that does not generate its fair share of negative conclusions is suspect of lacking a critical attitude.”

Ernst concluded his blog post with this challenge. “If any research group can demonstrate to have an index below 0.5 (which would mean the team has published twice as many negative conclusions as positive ones), I will gladly and publicly retract my suspicion that this group is “anywhere near critical enough.”

Professor Edzard Ernst was born in Germany in 1948, qualifying as a physician in 1978. He is trained in acupuncture, autogenic training, herbalism, homoeopathy, massage and spinal manipulation. Ernst was previously the Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University but retired early after clashing with the Prince of Wales concerning his highnesses’ advocacy of CAM, notoriously calling the prince a ‘snake-oil salesman’. He has previously stated that only approximately five percent of alternative medicine is backed by evidence.

Whilst his reputation amongst the CAM community has deemed him the unbeliever, Ernst has previously published a list of twenty therapies for which he believes there is positive evidence for treating certain conditions. These included acupuncture and relaxation techniques but were mostly herbal treatments, such as co-enzyme Q10 supplements for high blood pressure and St John’s wort for depression.

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