A number of years ago I started to voice my concerns regarding the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) and the potential detrimental impact that they have on society. I first spoke to colleagues at the NICM and later on with various directors of research at our school and university. Although my concerns were acknowledged, at least at school and university level, the overall feedback that I got was to keep my eyes closed and focus on my own work. This advice kept me going for a while but as soon as I read about people getting hurt, using some or other complementary medicine (CM), I started to feel partly responsible. Thus I decided to take it up with the vice chancellor and I send him a letter (an early draft version of my first blog post) in June 2015. After a number of email exchanges the message from the university management (that I received a couple of weeks ago) was rather simple but also disappointing. My assertions regarding the NICM are baseless and unsubstantiated by any evidence, and of course an indication that they might sue me if I dare to publish anything. In one of my final emails to the university management I indicated that I will now take over the role of the NICM, or the role that they should play, and inform the public regarding the risks and benefits of specific CMs.
How does the NICM currently inform the public? As an Australian consumer planning to use a specific CM, such as homeopathy, I will visit the NICMs website. They are after all a well known and trusted “national” institute funded with around $2 million/year by the taxpayer! On the NICMs homepage you will find “health information” which will give you a drop down menu including “information for consumers”. As a consumer I will now expect to find information on this webpage. This page do give you valuable information such as; you should gather information regarding the safety and efficacy of a CM, in general, before you make a choice and “natural does not necessarily mean safe.” But nowhere can I click on a specific CM such as homeopathy.
Another way of trying to find this information will be to search for it using the NICM’s search function. If you search homeopathy it will give you a number of hits. The first hit will direct you to the NICM’s response to the NHMRC homeopathy report (discussed here) but again nowhere will you be able to find information regarding homeopathy such as; what is it, what is the history, what is the scientific basis, what are the risks and benefits etc (as on 4/3/2016). And this is concerning. The NICM tells consumers that they should look at all the information regarding a specific CM before they use it and yet they just don’t provide you with that information. They will give you good advice regarding CM in general, but that is about it.
The NICM know that the consumer do not have access to the scientific literature and even if they had it will be very difficult to interpret all the information. So this is just another example where the NICM misleads the public although this example should rather be called telling half truths.
So the question remains; where can the consumer get unbiased information regarding specific CMs? The US based “National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health” is an easy to use site. On their homepage you will find “Health Information” and “topics A-Z”, click on H and then on homeopathy and all the information will be there. Another interesting website is the CAM- CANCER site. As the name suggests this site only lists CM’s that are claimed to have an effect on cancer. On their homepage you will find “CAM for cancer info” which directs you to a range of different CM’s, click on any of these and it give you information regarding that specific CM. It is so simple. But the main question is; how do you know that this information is unbiased? If a website, such as the NICMs website, does not give you any specific details or if all or most CM’s listed on a website are said to be beneficial and safe to use, then you must know that there is something wrong.
Another valuable source of information, for people who wants to dig a bit deeper, is the book “Trick or Treatment” and the blog site of Prof Edzard Ernst, where many different CMs are discussed in detail. Search any CM on his website and you will receive a huge amount of information and comments. The comments section will obviously contain strong differences of opinion but at least it is thought provoking.
To answer my question: Is the NICM a good place to look for this info? No, you will not find unbiased information regarding any specific CM on their website, and I do not expect to see it anytime soon.
What can you do about all of this?
Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop buying their products or using their treatments, and inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are, regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and what they are up to, you can always follow my Blog, Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon awards (the NICM has obviously been nominated), and please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – options below.