Misleading the public? Part 4: Efficacy of TCM and CM in general

In previous blog posts I’ve written about how the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), hosted at Western Sydney University, are creating public trust via radio interviews in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). They did this by comparing the theory and practice of TCM with quantum physics and comparing the efficacy of complementary medicine (CM) to that of surgery. Their arguments have been debunked, on this blog, as attempts by the NICM to intentionally mislead the public by creating ‘trust’ in TCM and CM in general. We have to remember that it is usually people suffering from some kind of medical condition that listens to these radio shows. It is also these people who are, unfortunately, the main target of the NICM. In this post the story continues. Below an excerpt of the radio interview:

 “Norman Swan: And so herbal medicine, the traditional Chinese herbal medicine? What about that? Well we know about irritable bowel syndrome, there’s been good evidence for that. Alan Bensoussan: Eczema as well has demonstrated some good evidence in some UK studies, we’ve had some preliminary work done on chronic hepatitis.Norman Swan: The thing about Traditional Chinese Medicine, TCM, though is that it does have a history and long track record which gives it credibility. But does a TCM practitioner and academic like Alan Bensoussan have time for non-TCM therapies? Alan Bensoussan: I think the fact that Chinese medicine is so well established in the public health system in one of the biggest countries, in the biggest country in the world, counts for an enormous amount because there’s an enormous amount of research.

End of excerpt.

This statement is designed to convince people that somewhere in the world you will find all the scientific evidence for TCM. The NICM doesn’t have that evidence; someone else has it – in this case China (the biggest country in the world? what happened to Russia etc.). Using a long tradition of use as a measure of safety is a very dangerous thing to do. But let us look at the word traditional. There are a number of scientists that have questioned this ‘long tradition of use’ and if this can actually be used as a measure of safety or basically anything else. They state that TCM, as we know it today, has been invented in 1950 – 1960 communist China and it is in effect nothing more than a profitable export product.

But let us ignore this for a moment. In the NICMs statement it is said that in China “there is an enormous amount of research” – presumably that means research indicating that TCM is effective and safe to use. Indeed there are, but it is also interesting to note that close to a 100% of clinical trials performed in China on TCM gives positive results. To put this into perspective; there are many TCM clinical trials that have been conducted outside of China which gave negative results – so clearly we have an issue here! TCM, which is a belief based medicine will, by default, always give positive results. That is what belief based medicines are – they always work. So what are the NICM trying to achieve here? They want to convince the public that TCM will work for any condition in any setting under any circumstances. From a scientific perspective: why didn’t the NICM go and reproduce the very best Chinese clinical trials in Australia over the last 15-20 years and by doing so put everyone’s mind at ease? Where are those results? It should be a very simple and easy thing to do and there is nothing better than good scientific results if you want to convince people that a specific medication works. So is TCM indeed only a lucrative export product and the NICM only wants a slice of this pie? Here is what the NICM say “…the potential for Australia to tap into the $170 billion global traditional Chinese medicine market…” I belief the answer is very clear! Below the interview continues:

“Norman Swan: But that explains your commitment to TCM, what about non-TCM therapies? Alan Bensoussan: I think there’s an enormous amount of value in non-TCM therapies as well. There are basically three categories as I see it in complementary medicine. There’s those therapies that are very orthodox in their own countries, things like Chinese medicine, ayurvedic medicine in India for example. And there are others that are very new, relatively trendy modalities, rebirthing, magnet therapy, a number of them. And the evidence base behind those, it has to be said, is absolutely minimal. And so I think sometimes the term complementary medicine is a little bit unjust, because it also buckets all these therapies in together. But there’s some reasonable evidence in a number of other therapies. In osteopathy, in chiropractic, there are already systematic reviews that have been performed. In homeopathy there’s a very difficult field because whilst there are some clinical trials that show benefits, and well-controlled clinical trials that show benefit, the theory that accompanies homeopathy, if anything gets up a medical scientist’s nose”

End of excerpt.

Here again we have the notion that there is a body of scientific evidence supporting CM. In general any treatment or medicine that does not have any scientific evidence are categorised as a complementary and/or alternative medicine (CAM). There is just no convincing scientific evidence that these things work. One can now argue that these radio interviews took place more than 15 years ago (in 1999-2000) and as we all know with age comes wisdom (although, sometimes age comes alone) – so is there any recent examples where the NICM continued with their unbridled support for CAM in the face of new scientific evidence? In 2014 the Australian NHMRC released a report concluding that homeopathy was found to be ineffective for 68 conditions tested and thus advised consumers about the dangers of using homeopathic remedies. And how does the NICM respond – they just stick to their story (somewhere out there there is high quality positive results for homeopathy) and they do their best behind the scenes to contribute in making the NHMRC report suspect. Absolutely no progress, which is a tell tale sign of quackery, and the same goes for their support of TCM. At the end of the day it seems to be all about money, but how long will they be able to keep this up?