The National Institute of Complementary Medicine makes headlines! But did they change their stance?

There are two very important aspects that the public should consider regarding any new medical treatment.

  1. Are there benefits and is this backed up with scientific evidence.
  2. What are the risks associated with this treatment.

Based on these two aspects, benefits vs risks, a consumer can make an informed decision. Usually when doctors or professors overemphasise the one aspect over the other then you should know that they probably have a “financial” finger in the pie. If the benefits are overstated and the risks ignored – then they really want to sell you this stuff.

Recently the NICM made the headlines.  A newspaper article  states “UWS complementary research institute promotes good news and ignores bad, critics say.” The overall impression is given that the NICM is misleading the public and the work that they do is completely dependent on what the CM industry wants. An example is given where research conducted at the NICM was being sold to the public in a misleading way – which the NICM of course denies. This specific study reports on the positive results of a 20-herb TCM clinical trial for people suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  The misleading way in which the NICM sold this result to the public via radio interviews have been described here, here and here and the main reason for them to do this seems to be money.

That the NICM will continue to defend this can now again be seen where they state: “Professor Bensoussan said his was a rigorous study that was highly cited and its findings were “accurate and not misleading”. “The results showed statistically and clinically significant improvement in irritable bowel syndrome in both standardised and individualised Chinese medicine treatment groups by end of the 16 weeks intervention when compared to a placebo,”

They had a golden opportunity to tell the public the whole story which they again failed to do.  They use the term “highly cited” as an indication of quality and validity of their study. This should now convince the reader that they are doing high quality independent scientific research, thus you can trust the results. But an educated guess is that most of these citations originates from China where bizarrely enough close to 100% of clinical trials conducted on herbal TCM give positive results. A UK study on the other hand gave a much more balanced view and concluded that the major finding is actually ignored and that the results are optimistically interpreted.

But this is not really the point. Nowhere will you find the very important aspect of “risks”. Yes, the study concluded that there seems to be some benefit for IBS sufferers but no mention is made of the very long list of risks associated with taking herbs. The reason why they combine 20 herbs is to improve their chances of finding at least one molecule that will have a beneficial effect – I call this the shotgun approach. The problem is however that by doing this you also increase your risk 20-fold.

What the NICM should have said regarding this particular study is something like this. “ Our study showed that there seems to be some benefit, as compared to the placebo, for people suffering from IBS. However, based on the well known risks such as toxicity, adverse reactions, herb-herb interaction, herb-drug interaction, lack of quality control, adulteration ect. we cannot recommend this herbal treatment. The risks outweigh the benefits.”

It is however unfortunate that even after all this information was made available to the NICM they continue to provide the public with misleading information – and the recent newspaper article just confirms this. The NICM only focus on the positive results of their study and they completely ignore the negatives (risks). They will not change their stance and will continue on their path. However, the main positive outcome thus far of this newspaper article is that I have been contacted by the office of the NSW Minister of Health regarding this matter and hopefully this will now get the ball rolling.