The Hogwarts School of Magic is actually in Australia! They even teach you how to ‘fly’ a broom (they really do).

And we thought that the ‘Hogwarts School of Magic’ only existed on the big screen. But, this type of school is actually real. There are quite a number of them currently operating in Australia, where bright-eyed, impressionable teenagers are taught how to manipulate energy fields in order to banish ‘evil spirits’ (or disease), and how to elevate out of their despondent earthly existence into an enchanted state of eternal health and happiness –  like flying for the first time on a broomstick (or smoking a joint). It will therefore come as no surprise, that the game of Quidditch, from the Harry Potter movies, is indeed being played at some of these modern schools of magic. The Tri-wizard cup was even won by Western Sydney University in 2013.  A real-life fantasy world.

Quidditch game

(Quiddich players ‘flying’ in attack formation on their Nimbus 2000 broomsticks)

But there is a problem!

To run around on a field with a broomstick between your legs is, I guess, okay, and not strange at all. It is good exercise, but you are not suddenly going to take off (at least not without a joint), because ‘strangely’ enough this only happens in the movies (or if you are completely stoned). So, for the rest of it, none of it is real – it is all a hoax. And this is now problematic, because all parents would agree that we want the best education for our children. But this is also where we tend to stop our involvement and we do not always ask the important question of; what is actually being taught at these schools? There are many reasons for this, one of them being that we tend to trust that government will protect us from fraudsters. So, when these schools are government funded and regulated, and especially, when they provide them with a stamp of approval via various accreditation schemes, this is usually enough to put our minds at ease – we  trust the system!

Unfortunately, some of these schools provide government accredited courses in magic. For example; children are being taught to manipulate ‘energy’, yes, without a wand (although I am not always so sure), but with the use of needles, crystals and various herbs such as the screaming mandrake (oh no wait, that was in the movie).

 

Specific examples of these courses include; Bachelor in Chinese medicine, chiropractic and osteopathy at RMIT University, Bachelor of Health Science (Naturopathy – includes homeopathy) at Endeavour College, Bachelor of traditional Chinese medicine at Western Sydney University and Bachelor of Health Science in traditional Chinese medicine at the University of Technology Sydney. The Southern School of Natural Therapies explains that their accredited course in Chinese Medicine; “is an ancient, holistic form of medicine that connects the mind, body, spirit. Chinese medicine believes that the body is made up of Qi – energy which permeates the whole body and flows through our meridians. Chinese medicine aims to stimulate the meridians, producing effects on different organs and systems within the body to restore balance and harmony” – this is pure magic!

This is what our kids are being taught at these schools, and unfortunately, this is pure fantasy because this ‘energy’, which is at the foundation of all of these pseudoscientific healthcare systems, simply do not exist. But, this ‘energy’ do indeed attract large numbers of students, because all of us are fascinated by magic. Regrettably, those students who actually believe in the magic show, tends to pay a significant amount of money to learn ‘magic’, and once they realise that it’s an elaborate government supported hoax, many simply tend to continue practicing magic. Because, by now, they have incurred a lot of debt, they have lost a lot of time, and they don’t want to be branded a drop-out or loser (sure, there will also be true believers amongst them). Hence, the problem of modern day ‘medical magicians’ will continue to be with us and might even surge, if the government continue to legitimise it via their various accreditation schemes.

And this brings me to accreditation, which is arguably a big part of the problem. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) recently invited submissions for their “Independent Review of Accreditation Systems within the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme for health professions”. The ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ (FSM) organisation did submit a detailed report highlighting their many concerns when accreditation is given to these schools of magic. This report was unfortunately deemed ‘out of scope’ by the COAG Health Council which implies that they are quite happy to continue to mislead students and their parents (and this can destroy families), as well as the patients who are on the receiving end of these completely ineffective magical treatments. Many patients do indeed get hurt and some even die, as was tragically illustrated by a practitioner whose magical ‘Slapping Therapy’ did not cure a 6yo boy from his type-1 diabetes.

Below you will find the Executive Summary of FSMs submission (with permission), and here you can find the full submission.  But the question remains; why do the government continue to bestow undue credibility and continue to legitimise ‘medical magic’ by providing accreditation to these courses in Australia?

“Executive Summary

Accreditation is antecedent to, and inextricably bound together with, practitioner registration. This submission raises concerns about registered alternative medicine (AltMed) practitioners, accusing the present accreditation system of failing to protect the public through its legitimising poor quality, belief-based, rather than evidence-based, education and on-going training of chiropractors, osteopaths and Chinese medicine/acupuncturists.

FSM is aware that some higher education institutes and continuing professional development courses give credibility to pseudoscience. Examples of pseudoscience include chiropractic (subluxation theory, Kinesiology, Retained Neonatal Reflex and Webster Technique, osteopathy (Osteopathy of the Cranial Field and Visceral Manipulation) and Chinese Medicine (Acupuncture and the teaching of “Qi”, energy blockages that cause disease, as a fact).

FSM also remains concerned with the accreditation process supervised by AHPRA and its Boards.

FSM alleges that:

A. the training of registered AltMed practitioners:

  1. is of low quality;
  2. is based on pseudo-scientific concepts that reject germ theory as the cause of disease;
  3. teach invalid diagnostic technique;
  4. includes potentially dangerous interventions, continued in the ongoing training of practitioners;
  5. wastes considerable public funding allocated to universities which teach these unscientific courses; and
  6. compromises our universities’ reputation within Australia and internationally.

B. thousands of false and misleading claims on AltMed websites breach the National Law. This report demonstrates that registered AltMed practitioners:

  1. are poorly trained;
  2. are not competent to treat patients;
  3. delay correct diagnosis and evidence-based therapies thereby allowing progression of disorders;
  4. may cause harm;
  5. waste millions of health dollars;
  6. undermine the efforts of evidence-based practitioners in their communities;
  7. do not, in respect of exaggerated claims and advertising, behave in an ethical manner;
  8. create considerable confusion for patients with chronic ailments; and
  9. focus their ongoing training on building their practices rather than on the needs of patients.
  10. This report also raises concerns about pseudoscience-based courses, that may attract VET-help fees, such as reflexology, homeopathy, aromatherapy and reiki, that are advertised on Government websites.

C. Government websites are providing undeserved credibility for discredited AltMed.

Underserved credibility is given to discredited AltMed courses including Reflexology, Aromatherapy, Homeopathy, Naturopathy and Reiki that may attract VET-help fees and are advertised on Government training websites.

Using acupuncture as an example, along with valid research findings, informed opinions and advice from medical experts, this report investigates the teachings in one high-profile accredited course and the impact and costs of this intervention on health care. While this report focuses on acupuncture, the same concerns can be extrapolated to other domains of pseudo-science, which is in both accredited university and continuing professional development courses. It also recommends that the scope of practice of AltMed practitioners should be limited to what they can advertise, to further protect patients from invalid diagnosis and belief-based interventions.

While ALL unregistered AltMed practitioners are NOT practicing any form of evidence-based medicine, (reflexology, iridology etc), there are thousands of registered practitioners, bound by the National Law to practice care that is evidence-based, who are practicing pseudoscience. The scope of the recent NHMRC review of natural therapies EXCLUDED interventions offered by registered practitioners on the basis that consumer protection was available through the AHPRA scheme.

This report highlights the millions of health dollars wasted by the Government funding of AltMed teachings and practices. Nearly $220 million was spent on acupuncture, chiropractic and osteopathy through Medicare from July 2011 to June 2016.

AltMed practitioners, who reject evidence-based medicine and over-service patient with placebo interventions are not the ‘right people’ to address patient needs, now and in the future.”

Are the Gatekeepers of Science made of stone? The journals respond to the NICMs undeclared conflicts of interests.

Imposing figures, these gatekeepers pictured above. Problem is, they only give the appearance that they serve a purpose because they are made of stone, and hence, anyone, friend or foe, can easily pass. In the world of science we also have gatekeepers  (scientific journals, peer reviewers, university management etc.) who’s sole duty is to distinguish friend from foe. The former being ‘real scientists’ and the latter, ‘promotional scientists’ or ‘pseudoscientists’.  The gatekeepers’ duty is therefore to stop the promotional scientists in their tracks, and not allow them entrance into the scientific system. As soon as these people are allowed in, society will be engulfed with fictitious or alternative ‘facts’, and this can only lead to chaos (unfortunately this has already happened in many countries).

Real scientists understands social responsibility and impact, whereas promotional scientists ignores it, for the sake of more funding and increased sales for their sponsors. How to determine the difference between the two? Good place to start is to have a look at who funds a scientific study. Usually this information can be found within the conflicts of interests’ section, which has to be completed by all researchers. Being funded by industry does, of course, not necessarily mean that the research in question is biased. Consequently, it is not entirely fool-proof, but a good starting point nonetheless. It is, however, fool-proof when researchers intentionally fail to declare their obvious conflicts of interests, which implies that their research results are very likely to be biased, and geared towards promoting a specific product or service that their sponsors happen to sell.

Another way to tell the difference between the two, is if a research group always report positive results. These positive results doesn’t necessarily have to be reflected as such in their scientific articles, but more so when they use (social) media to ‘translate’ these results to the public. It is hard, but not impossible, to cheat in a scientific article and it is also risky business. You could lose your job, but then only if you have effective gatekeepers in place. To use (social) media to falsely promote ‘positive’ results is far safer because it is unregulated, it reaches the target audience better (the public), and hence it is far easier to get away with it. It basically circumvents the gatekeepers of science. This is an important aspect, because the public does not read scientific articles (it isn’t always available and it’s written in a scientific language that few people understand), but rather read someone’s interpretation of it on Facebook or in the newspaper.

Some of these promotional researchers have the ability to take a neutral or negative result and advertise it on social media as a clear positive. This is unethical, but unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines in place to prevent this from happening. Hence, another loophole in the academic system that unscrupulous promotional researchers exploit to the full. But let’s only look at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine’s (NICM) undeclared conflicts of interests, and I’ll get back to their advertising via social media prowess at a later stage.

The NICMs undeclared conflicts of interests

In a previous article I’ve written about the NICM and their intentional failure to declare their very obvious conflicts of interests in many of their acupuncture studies – and this has been going on for years. Currently, the most notable and largest study is an ‘acupuncture for infertility’ clinical trial (final results not available yet). When they published the trial design they ‘forgot’ to mention that Alan Bensoussan and Caroline Smith (both from the NICM) are consultants for commercial acupuncture-fertility clinics, the director of these clinics serve on the NICM’s advisory board, students of the NICM finds employment at these clinics, and that these clinics have donated money to the NICM (you can read about the details here and here).

I’ve also reported that Western Sydney University (WSU) who hosts the NICM, simply refused to even respond to this issue after I’ve raised it with their ethics committee.  One of the four journal editors who was contacted, also ignored this issue even though the journal, ‘European Journal of Integrative Medicine’ (EJIM) clearly states that;

All authors must disclose any financial and personal relationships with other people or organizations that could inappropriately influence (bias) their work. Examples of potential conflicts of interest include employment, consultancies, stock ownership, honoraria, paid expert testimony, patent applications/registrations, and grants or other funding. If there are no conflicts of interest then please state this: ‘Conflicts of interest: none.”

The reason why this editor ignored this issue, became clear when I looked at who she was.  Prof Nicola Robinson, happens to be an acupuncturist, she was also admitted to the  illustrious ‘ Alternative Medicine Hall of Fame’ (for ‘researchers’ that never publishes negative results),  and she has co-authored an acupuncture article with the NICM entitled; “Does acupuncture improve the outcome of in vitro fertilization? Guidance for future trials”. Needless to say, but even in this article under the heading ‘Conflict of interest’ they also declared to have ‘no competing financial interests’. Clearly, WSU and this editor has completely removed the role of gatekeepers and they are allowing everything to pass as ‘science’. This is also the reason why the NICM and WSU have again been nominated in 2017, for the Bent Spoon award, given to the best Australian pseudoscientist of the year.

The response from the British Medical Journal Open (BMJO) 

The BMJO published the NICMs article entitled “Complementary therapies for labour and birth study: a randomised controlled trial of antenatal integrative medicine for pain management in labour”. Here again we see that the NICM loves to combine or integrate acupressure (acupuncture without the needles) with interventions that in all likelihood will yield a positive result. In this study they combined six interventions (incl. acupressure to unblock your meridians so that your life-force or Chi can flow freely) and all interventions taken together gave them very good results. It also received a lot of (social) media attention. Now, any scientist will know that when you combine six interventions as a single treatment, there will be no way of telling which of these actually contributed to the positive outcome. And this is exactly what the NICM wants. And hence, although these overall results can be applauded, it again shows that the NICM have ulterior motives which, simply put, is to integrate fake treatments with real treatments and use these results to convince more people to use their commercial acupuncture clinics.

Although the journal did respond to this issue, and we have had a number of conversations, they eventually decided that “we do not feel that the authors have a competing interest”. Even though, BMJO clearly states that;

“A competing interest exists when professional judgement concerning a primary interest (such as patients’ welfare or the validity of research) may be influenced by a secondary interest (such as financial gain or personal relationship). There is nothing inherently unethical about a competing interest but it should be acknowledged and openly stated.”

Agreed, and this is exactly what the NICM intentionally did not do, but, unfortunately, this was also the last correspondence I had with BMJO.

Response from the journal ‘Trials’

Journal three was a bit more thorough. It concerns a publication in the journal ‘Trials’ entitled “Acupuncture to improve live birth rates for women undergoing in vitro fertilization: a protocol for a randomized controlled trial” (The media called this large and expensive study “Unis in a wacky waste of cash” at the time.) In this article, they again intentionally failed to declare their very obvious conflicts of interests, but eventually they were forced to publish a correction, which reads;

After publication of our article [1] we realised that our Competing Interests statement should have read as follows: Jane Lyttleton is the Clinical Director of The Acupuncture Pregnancy Clinic. Caroline Smith has had an association with The Acupuncture Pregnancy Clinic. She states that she has not received any financial compensation for this relationship at any time.”

Although a move in the right direction, not completely true, because Caroline Smith is/was clearly a consultant for these clinics (over an 8-year period, but this info was deleted from the clinic’s website after I published my first blog post on this issue), and it does not even mention the donations that the NICM received from these clinics – and this is the crux of the matter! Sure, Caroline Smith probably did not receive any money in her own bank account, but the NICM did accept donations for their research activities. All of this counts towards academic promotions, more students and she was even named WSU’s researcher of the year in 2015. So, she clearly benefited from it all.

Response from ‘Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine'(ECAM)

The fourth journal, ECAM (published by Hindawi) is still investigating this matter. But true to their nature, the NICM first tried to mislead the journal. The journal was even planning to publish a correction, but luckily, they decided to run this ‘correction’ past me first. And, knowing the NICM well, it was quite easy to point out how they were being misled with clever wordplay. After the NICMs failed attempt to mislead Hindawi, WSU also stopped responding to Hindawi’s further queries based on this new information. Only after Hindawi lodged a formal complaint with the university’s ‘independent conflicts resolution unit’ did they respond. Although I am not at all convinced regarding this unit’s independence (I’ve had some bad experiences with them), they even started to respond to my initial queries that I’ve emailed to them about 10 months ago.

Surprisingly, I am currently in contact with WSU’s department of Audit and Risk, who has now apparently forwarded this matter to an external investigator (I haven’t heard anything from them yet). It is surprising, because I am not in contact with scientists or ethics committees who are the best suited to deal with these matters – this is after all a simple case of scientific misconduct. As Alan Bensoussan publicly stated “We understand conflict of interest concerns, but this is why we have strict guidelines and ethics committees …..”

So, WSU is in all likelihood trying to mitigate the potential risks regarding this comparatively small issue, whereas they should start to address the far bigger underlying problem of allowing pseudoscientists a foot in the door.  Apparently, WSU’s gatekeepers will allow anyone in as long as you hand them a bit a cash – and this does not bode well. Promoting pseudoscientific healthcare systems, especially via universities, leads to a lot of people (and animals) getting hurt or even die, as was tragically illustrated with the 6yo boy who died after attending a ‘Slapping Therapy’ workshop at a clinic of one of the NICMs partners.

It is quite interesting to note the big difference between how the journals or ‘gatekeepers’ of science responded to this issue. From an absolute and resolute ‘let’s completely ignore the issue’, to a very thorough ongoing investigation, and everything in-between. It is at least good to see that some journals still understand the importance of fulfilling their gatekeeper role. This again shows that science might be factual, but human interpretations of factual observations is, or can be, strongly influenced by our diverse and many vested interests. And this leads to fiction becoming fact and vica versa.  Or put differently; science is simple, scientists are complex! And this is, unfortunately, a growing concern and danger to public safety and makes it increasingly difficult for the public, to make informed decisions regarding healthcare. Although this article only dealt with conflicts of interests, a rather ‘minor’ issue, a next article will deal with the ‘scientific’ content of the NICMs acupuncture articles. This will clearly illustrate how the NICM is intentionally promoting placebo treatments at the expense of science and public safety, and how WSU is not only allowing this to happen, but that they are even actively assisting the NICM to achieve their dubious objectives.

What can you do about this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop believing that Chi is real, because it simply does not exist. Stop buying their products or using their treatments, and inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their sick 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.

 

 

 

 

‘And the Bent Spoon Award goes to…?’ The NICM nominated for the second year running!!

Reminiscent of Voldemort about to cast an evil spell, Prof Barney Glover (photo BL – resemblance is striking) is showing a packed auditorium his outstretched hand above which the mystical ‘life force’ or Chi hovers. Because no one, not even Barney, can see anything floating above his hand, Prof Alan Bensoussan (photo BR) comes to the rescue by explaining that if everyone just play along, and make as if they can see Chi, then they all stand to make a lot of money. His strenuous expression indicates that it is a hard sell, but he also knows that the money factor and quality of showmanship, usually attracts a crowd and also wins out over common sense. The photo on top is from Voldemort, the villain from the Harry Potter movies.  The reason why these three men looks so serious (excl. Voldemort because he is an actor, oh no, wait, all three are actors) is because they know damn well that what they are doing is ‘magic’. So, we are entering an era where all three these characters are real, or scientists should start to stand up for science!

In order to expose these ‘magicians’ and to create public awareness regarding their trickery, the Australian Skeptics Inc. annually presents the Bent Spoon Award for the top pseudoscientist of the year. It is in effect the Oscars for pseudoscientists, because both reward outstanding acting abilities. This year there are a number of nominees including the controversial National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) hosted at Western Sydney University (WSU). Below is the full nomination:

Nominee: National Institute of Complementary Medicine and Western Sydney University

Nominated by: Australian Skeptics and others

Date: 20/09/2017

For continuing to promote unsupported and debunked ‘medical’ treatments, despite promises late last year, in response to a 2016 Bent Spoon nomination, that they are “intending to revise our website … and hope to address some of these issues you have raised”. It still promotes the following treatments under the Complementary Medicine banner: acupuncture, chiropractic, aromatherapy, naturopathy, spiritual healing, crystal therapy, reflexology, ‘energy therapies’ (reiki, qigong, electromagnetic field therapy), TCM, Ayurvedic medicine, anthroposophical medicine, healing touch, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, and homeopathy. Secondly, NICM and UWS are nominated for planning to establish an on-campus TCM clinic for the general public.

Hopefully this year they will walk away with this coveted award, which is bestowed upon “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.” In 2016, the NICM tried for some reason, but in vain, to remove their nomination, but their attempts backfired somewhat. You can read about their sorry attempts here. It is also notable that the 2016 nomination was done by one person, whilst the 2017 nomination was done by a group of people, indicating that more and more people are coming around to the fact that the NICM/WSU are indeed misleading the public.

Key people in this year’s nomination is again the director of the NICM, Prof Alan Bensoussan, and the Vice-Chancellor of WSU, Prof Barney Glover. Between these two men, they earn roughly $1.2 million AUD per year, dished out by the Australian public. In return for these vast sums of money, the Australian public are being misled into believing that all of the above therapies are useful, effective and safe. This is obviously not true as you can see in my previous article which dealt with the involvement of the NICM and WSU in the tragic case of the 6yo boy who died after attending a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) based ‘slapping therapy’ workshop in Sydney. By slapping yourself you supposedly influence the flow of Chi through meridians and hence you will be cured of disease. Unfortunately, this boy suffered from diabetes and because many people belief that Chi is real, he was taken off his medication during the workshop – a life-threatening scenario. Clearly the ‘treatments’ that the NICM promote is not only ineffective, but it can also be quite dangerous.

But let us look at Alan Bensoussan. As a registered acupuncturist and herbal Chinese medicine man, he obviously falls within the category of delusional ‘healthcare’ practitioners. Because his livelihood depends on it, he will continue his unwavering support of debunked treatments, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that these ‘treatments’ simply does not work. Ineffective treatments is quite dangerous, not only to people, but to wildlife as well. In his delusional world, all TCM therapies are effective and hence he will happily go to court to act as a character witness for his business partner (another TCM practitioner) who was send to jail for importing Rhino horn, and other endangered animal material, into Australia. This was followed by promoting rhino horn as a life-saving medicine in a thesis, approved by Alan and WSU (2012). And quite recently (2017) the NICM even had a link on their website where consumers could find information regarding the life-saving properties of rhino horn, and I guess they could even buy it online (link has since been removed).  Everything works in his delusional world.

There are many more examples such as his continued support for debunked treatments such as homeopathy, acupuncture etc. but this award is not only for supporting these treatments, it is also the way in which they mislead the public. For example: they fail to declare their many  conflicts of interest on many of their research papers (scientific misconduct), they design their experiments in such a way that it almost always gives a positive result (A+B vs B trial design), and even if the result is negative they will promote it as a big positive on WSU’s news site, or on social media (scientific misconduct and intentionally misleading the public). They even misled the Australian Research Council (info obtained after 2.5 years under a Freedom of Information request) who gave them a ranking of five, which stands for ‘research quality well above world standard’ in their ‘Excellence of Research for Australia’ program.  With this fraudulently obtained ranking, they lobby, but also mislead; UK royalty, ministers, regulators, foreign governments (specifically China) etc. in order to invest more money in the NICM.

But they also use this ranking to try and crush any negative reports, such as their 2016 Bent Spoon nomination – and this is where the excellent acting comes into play. Here is an excerpt from Alan’s letter to the Australian Skeptics “NICM conducts itself with the highest degree of integrity, ethics, scientific enquiry and social responsibility. Our research is independent, peer-reviewed, and is published in highly reputable, world-leading journals. NICM has been evaluated by Australia’s leading scientists under the Excellence in Research for Australia scheme and received the highest ranking of 5 for two consecutive periods, representing research that is deemed well above world standard.” None of this is true, and yet they can write these things without blushing. Their acting ability is so good, that they do not only fool the public, they actually have the acting ability to fool themselves. Any actor that can immerse themselves into a role to a point where they become the character deserves an Oscar, or in this case a bent spoon.

As for Prof Barney Glover. Well, he was warned about all of this, by myself and others, that by supporting the modus operandi of the NICM and hence these debunked treatments, including TCM, people will needlessly get hurt or even die (the Slapping therapy is a case in point). Unfortunately, Barney and the rest of WSU management decided to ignore all of these warnings and is fully supportive, and protects, the NICM at a cost of >$2 million AUD per year. I guess if you can’t beat them, join them; so, Barney has been actively involved in lobbying the Australian public that Chi exists and he has opened the door for China to use Australians as guinea pigs for their unproven and disproven TCM therapies.  It is well known that China wants to internationalise TCM, and via Alan and Barney the Australian public will now have to bear the brunt of ineffective therapies. Here is an excellent article in the ‘Economist’, explaining the dangers of doing just this – the title says it all; “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.”

Armed with this knowledge, Barney visited China on a number of occasions and together with Alan managed to get TCM in the Free Trade Agreement signed between China and Australia. This has given the impetus for Chinese companies to export more of their disproven and unproven ‘medicines’ to Australia, and it forms the cornerstone of a new TCM facility that will be built in Sydney. This facility will be co-managed by the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine (BUCM) and because it needs to be profitable within a couple of years, implies that it will be operated like a commercial clinic or hospital.  In the NICM’s own words during a industry sponsors meeting, the NICM will “lead the modernisation and integration of Chinese Medicine in the West through the
development of an effective Integrative Medicine Facility or TCM Hospital.” The BUCM has managed to start a similar 81-bed ‘hospital’ in Germany and this will likely be the model on which the Sydney facility will be based. So much for ‘evidence-based’ treatments, where evidence that a treatment does more good than harm comes first, before you start selling it to the public. But in their delusional world, all of TCM, and for that matter all of complementary medicine, works – so why should they provide any evidence?  You only have to belief that it works, and that is it!

At the heart of all of this, as usual, is money. The millions that Barney, Alan and the NICM cost the Australian public has to be recovered somehow, and hence these two men decided to destroy science, scientific education and put the public’s health at risk by allowing WSU to become the ‘scientific’ façade of a very dubious, and dangerous, complementary medicine industry. In exchange, they are handsomely rewarded with very big donations towards their ‘research efforts’, or rather, promotional research. Here they received $10 million from Blackmores, here is $4 million from the highly controversial Jacka Foundation (links with anti-vaccination activists), not to mention the millions from other complementary medicine companies, including Chinese companies and investors.

The list of misleading and false claims and statements constantly flowing from the NICM is unfortunately so long that it will require a series of books to be written in order to cover everything. It is however, quite remarkable, how similar their modus operandi is to the notorious gangster, Al Capone, who also had a ‘good guy’ public image, but beneath the surface had a somewhat more  sinister nature.  But the sad thing is that nobody can seemingly do anything about this. As long as they are in a position of power and they manage to bring in this kind of money; rules, ethics and morals simply do not apply anymore. As further evidence of their extremely good acting abilities, here is the title of Voldemort’s, oh sorry,  Barney’s speech given at the National Press club (photo) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will?” This is acting at its best, and in my view, deserving of the Bent Spoon award.

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop believing that Chi is real, because it simply does not exist. Stop buying their products or using their treatments, and inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their sick 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 BlogTwitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon awards, and please, ‘Like’ and share this article – options below.

Death by ‘Slapping Therapy’. The role of the NICM, and others, in this tragedy.

It is always a terrible day when children die at the hands of fake medical practitioners or pseudoscientists. It is so unnecessary and preventable, and yet, it happens every day everywhere around the world. The proverbial snake-oil salesman is not a new phenomenon, it has always been with us, but it is becoming a global epidemic since some universities decided to elevate this type of quackery, to become state-funded and university-supported quackery. This turn of events lends undue credibility and legitimacy to these ineffective and dangerous ‘treatments’ and this translates into more people being fooled, while the snake-oil salesmen and those universities stand to make more money. It is always about money! But let’s have a look at how it works with the following tragic example, followed by some suggestions as to what you can do to help prevent these things from happening.

The controversial ‘Slapping Therapy’

This example involves a complementary therapy within the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), called ‘slapping therapy’ or ‘Paidalajin’. A 6yo boy suffering from type-1 diabetes attended a slapping therapy workshop in Sydney with his parents, but sadly, the boy died in his hotel room shortly afterwards. Although the case is still before the courts, it is believed that he was deprived of medication and food during the workshop. The parents and grandmother have been arrested and faces manslaughter charges while the TCM practitioner, Hongchi Xiao, was only quite recently extradited from the UK, where another person died at one of his workshops. He was not granted bail and faces a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment.

But what is this ‘slapping therapy’, and why is it called controversial? It involves the flow of ‘energy’ or a ‘life force’ (chi) through channels (meridians) and by slapping yourself, or being slapped by someone else, you restore the flow of chi and your body starts to expel ‘toxins’. These toxins become visible when your skin turns red, and I guess, purple and blue, depending on how hard you are being hit. The theory was, therefore, that by slapping this boy he would be cured from diabetes, and this belief is so strong, that he was also taken off his medication – a life threatening scenario. But what does science say? Chi does not exist, meridians do not exist, diabetes cannot be cured and especially not by slapping, and the so-called toxins that your body expel are called bruising (the slapping injury causes tiny blood vessels to burst and the blood gets trapped below the skin’s surface, which causes a bruise). Just imagine how many people get hurt or die, due to TCM practitioners using chi, meridians etc. to diagnose and treat disease. Because it does not exist, they cannot really diagnose anything, and hence cannot effectively treat anything!

Here is a photo of the type of bruising that you can expect, posted as a testimonial from a cancer sufferer and devout follower of Master Xiao (I always wonder how many of these testimonials are real). In addition, if you hit a young child to a point of severe bruising it is called child abuse, but in the pseudoscientific world it is apparently called ‘self-healing’.

All of TCM is controversial, or none of it is!

If you promote TCM, in whatever shape or form, you also promote its underlying pseudoscientific principles. Let’s look at acupuncture; You insert needles at specific points (acupoints) that supposedly manipulate the flow of chi through meridians – and this, according to practitioners, cures disease! This acupuncturist (at Western Sydney University – WSU) recently published a case study where she reported that her patient did not recover after receiving an acupuncture treatment. What was her conclusion? “Despite this, I found that my confidence was undermined by being out of touch with my own inner knowing or Yi.” So, what is Yi? It is your intent (yi 意 ), and when your intentions (to cure disease) becomes permanent, then it becomes your will (zhi 志 ). In other words, acupuncture works and nobody should argue with that, the problem, this time, was that her intention for it to work were insufficient. Solution: believe more deeply!  And to think that this was part of the ‘science’ that was reviewed by the Australian Research Council in their Excellence of Research for Australia scheme, which they rewarded with the highest possible ranking (5) “evidence of outstanding performance well above world standard (something is rotten, but more about this in a next article).

But the same goes for herbal TCM, which also aims to manipulate the flow of chi through meridians. As described by ‘Prof’ Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM at WSU) in a radio interview; “The first patient would receive acupunctural herbs that disperse the accumulation of energy, the second patient would receive acupunctural herbs that strengthen and tonify the low back. It’s a tool like this concept of circulation of energy, that actually allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to distinguish these patients, and allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to treat the patients in a way that the patient themselves may understand better,”.

Disease is therefore seen as an imbalance of a non-existent energy that flows through non-existent meridians, and the ‘slapping therapist’ makes use of these ‘fake’ principles to mislead people. In their strange world, bacteria, viruses, pancreatic cells secreting insulin etc. do not exist, but rather disease is caused by your chi clogging your meridians and hence slapping yourself, or inserting needles, or taking herbs, will unclog your meridians and you will be cured of whatever ailment you might suffer from. They are continuing, to this day, to promote these false and dangerous ideas to the Australian public. And again, it is dangerous because if you cannot diagnose a disease, you cannot effectively treat it. Any successful TCM treatment (some herbs might be effective) is therefore purely based on luck. Ever wondered why a TCM practitioner will prescribe a patient a combination of 10-20 different herbs? Because it improves their chances of getting lucky, but also amplifies the many risks, 20-fold.

This is why scientists call TCM, and the many other forms of complementary medicine, belief-based healthcare systems. You only have to believe hard enough that it works and that’s it, there are more than enough gullible people who will fall for your trickery. Sure, you get true believers (delusional) and unscrupulous people (criminals) that only make as if they belief, for the sake of misleading you and to make money out of you. If you fall for them, then, unfortunately, you are on your own. Master Xiao’s comments after his arrest? “This has nothing to do with the workshop. This boy had a lot of diseases, more than we ever know.” It is never their fault.

But now a very unfortunate death has occurred, which means that many of the important role players in this tragedy will disavow the slapping therapy ‘treatment’ in order to absolve themselves of responsibility and to stay out of the news. They do not accept any negative reports because it tends to clash with their Yi and Zhi. And hence they continue to promote acupuncture and TCM, even though many deaths have occurred as a direct result of acupuncture and even more due to herbal TCM remedies. And to think that most deaths, by far, occur as an indirect result after using these pseudoscientific therapies by neglecting a treatable or manageable medical condition, such as malaria or diabetes. The total number of deaths? Nobody knows.

Either all of the above therapies and treatments are controversial and should be stopped, or none of it is. I am fully supportive of the former, but those ‘open-minded’ people whose brains have fallen out, albeit delusional or criminal people, will obviously choose the latter and they will continue to make money out of the misfortunes of others. And with the current support of some universities, this problem will only get bigger.

Who is now really to blame for these tragic events? The role of Tasly Healthpac and the NICM.

No real doctor or scientist or any decent person with ethics and morals would allow a slapping therapist to give a workshop on their premises. Especially not to children suffering from serious medical conditions. What you should do, especially if you are an evidence-based healthcare practitioner, is to explain to this person that what he does is dangerous and that he should please stop doing it. And then you report him to the police. But this did not happen. So, the workshop was held at the ‘Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative Medicine’. According to a Tasly spokesperson, the slapping therapist “Mr Xiao rented a room from our centre to conduct what was described to us as a series of health seminars. The boy and his mother were participants in the seminar.” Apparently, they did not know about the slapping therapy, but is this true?

It is telling that Tasly have deleted their website or they have changed their name to Medicentral, where they continue to provide TCM and acupuncture alongside conventional treatments. No information can be found on their new website regarding the workshop, but from internet archives, it is clear that they themselves advertised this workshop. Their old website received up to 538 daily visitors, and hence their marketing efforts via their website reached many people in Australia (I would not be surprised if the parents of the deceased became aware of this workshop via Tasly’s website). On Master Xiao’s website he also states that his workshop was co-organised by an Australian medical institution. Therefore, Tasly’s statement is false. Slapping, acupuncture, herbal TCM – it is all the same thing, and that is why they allowed this workshop to be held on their premises.

A key person at Tasly is the founder, Dr Ven Tan, who started the practice more than 20 years ago and ‘through his own practice he has come to realise the limitations of conventional Western medicine and to worship the merit of Traditional Chinese Medicine’. Having a well-established practice and making statements such as above will draw the attention of pseudoscientists at some Australian Universities. WSU in Sydney (and they are by no means the only Australian university who have decided to put money before science and ethics) used public money to convert TCM practitioners into ‘Professors’ and hence, it is to be expected that they will seek funding from, or collaborate with Tasly in exchange for providing extra credibility and legitimacy for Tasly’s pseudoscientific services. ‘Integrating’ TCM with conventional therapies, with the involvement of WSU, creates trust and a sense of security in patients that all of the provided services at Tasly’s are underpinned by science, and thus more and more people will be misled.

Here (second photo on the left) is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chinese and Australian governments ‘aimed at promoting TCM in Australia through a collaborative initiative’ witnessed by Dr Ven Tan (Tasly) and Prof Alan Bensoussan (NICM at WSU). Another MoU was signed between Tasly and the NICM in 2011 which states that the NICM will provide “Assistance in the development of an Integrative Care Model: to assist the Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative medicine so that its structure aims to integrate TCM and western medical diagnostics and treatments in an integrated, patient centred way.” The result of doing just that, speaks tragically for itself.

It is well known that the Chinese government wants to internationalise TCM, it is, after all, a $170 billion industry. An excellent article about this issue, a real eye-opener, was recently published in the Economist “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.” The NICM has played a crucial role in the national registration of TCM practitioners in 2012, which elevated TCM to the same level as conventional healthcare, lending undue credibility to TCM. This extra legitimacy was used by the NICM to facilitate China’s plans for internationalisation of TCM via Australia. They lobbied various Ministers and managed to get TCM into the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015, shortly after the boy’s death from slapping. In 2016 a trade delegation of the Minister of Health (Jillian Skinner – now retired) visited China, accompanied by Dr Ven Tan and Prof Alan Bensoussan. Part of the mission was “To assist the University of Western Sydney’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) secure investor and donor support for the NICM’s integrative Chinese medicine facility medicine/treatment on the Westmead Campus“.

Yes, they are building a large integrative TCM facility in Sydney, which will open in 2018. They will obviously sell this as a ‘research’ facility, but in truth, it will be operated like a commercial facility. All of this is good news for China, Tasly and the NICM, but it is definitely not good news for the Australian public.

Tasly and NICM should therefore also be held responsible for these tragic events.

The role of the regulator, the TGA, and the NICM’s influence

In Australia, this very important function to protect the public against the sort of quackery described above, is being done by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Pseudoscientists also know that the TGA is a potential key hurdle that must be overcome. They therefore lobby intensely, and some infiltrate the TGA (Alan Bensoussan has served many years on the TGA panel for complementary medicines), where they actually managed to get the job done. Even though the golden rule is that you really do not need to be a pseudoscientist in order to know what pseudoscience is, or to adequately regulate it. And yet, there are a number of TCM practitioners currently involved with regulating TCM at the TGA.

The NICM, and others, have managed to convince the TGA that almost all of these products and services are ‘low risk’, meaning low direct risk. Unfortunately, the high indirect risk is being ignored. You are probably not going to die after being slapped, but if you stop taking your real medicine it can lead to your death (the possible cause of the boy’s death). And this is exactly what this slapping therapist says. Medicine is poison so let’s slap your medical condition out of you.  What is my evidence for the bold statement regarding the TGA? They recently published their draft list of ‘permitted indications’, or the ‘medical’ claim that manufacturers can make for their products. Included in this list is 140 TCM indications. For example: “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”. When a regulator allows pseudoscientists a foot in the door, then the above is the only logical outcome and now the TGA accepts the notion that meridians, chi, Yin and Yang etc. is real. And here again, the NICM is assisting Chinese companies to help them get past the TGA bureaucracy in order for them to register and sell their products in Australia. Having a partner such as the NICM in Australia, obviously makes a lot of Chinese companies very happy. Shouldn’t the TGA also be blamed when people get hurt after using these pseudoscientific healthcare treatments?

In a nutshell. The bereaved parents of the deceased are in trouble, while the slapping therapist is in jail where he will hopefully stay for a long time. But what about Tasly’s which promoted and hosted this workshop as part of their integrative medicine approach, or the NICM who collaborated with this clinic and facilitated their ‘integrative’ approach and who promoted TCM for decades and probably have misled thousands of people over the years, or the regulators who have opened their doors for pseudoscientists and who are continuing to allow this to happen? (I’ve actually volunteered my services to the TGA, but they were not interested.) Not even to speak about the politicians who could actually do something about this, but apparently have little interest to go in against the zhi (will) of the industry.

I can only hope that the courts will also look at the other players in this scenario who are partly responsible for this boy’s death, because it is time that the underlying problems be addressed, otherwise more and more people, including children, will get hurt.

What can you do about all of this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop buying complementary, alternative, traditional or integrative ‘medicines’ and stop  using their ‘treatments’. 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 how they continue to promote these ‘medicines’ and ‘treatments’, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon Awards, for which the NICM has again been nominated. Please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – options below.

Stopping your support of these products and services, by informing yourself and by creating awareness about these issues, are pretty much the only things you can do in order to prevent these needless deaths. It is just such a pity that the VC’s, regulators and politicians (all funded by the taxpayer!) don’t have much interest in this, or just can’t seem to get the job done because of vested interests.  I’ll end with the wise, but somewhat empty, words of Prof Barney Glover (VC of WSU) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will!” – Clearly Prof. Glover will not stand up for the truth, hopefully, the public will!

Conflicts of Interest: Is there a difference between Doctors and Acupuncturists turned researchers?

Some serious flaws in two acupuncture clinical trials, for the treatment of infertility and allergic rhinitis, were recently published on Prof Edzard Ernst’s blog. The overly positive way in which the researchers made their mostly negative results public was also of concern. Both these studies were published by the researcher of the year, Prof Caroline Smith, of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Australia. The stream of comments and discussions that followed made me think of another commonly overlooked aspect when it comes to acupuncture clinical trials. Conflict of interest! In both these studies the authors declared to have no conflicts of interest and in other similar studies by this author this also seems to be the case. The question can be asked; If you are a practicing acupuncturist conducting a clinical trial in acupuncture, isn’t that, by default, a serious conflict of interest? The intention of this article is not an in-depth discussion of what a conflict of interest is, but rather to compare medical doctors with acupuncturists turned researchers. Let me explain.

Some medical doctors (GPs, surgeons etc.) decide to leave their practice after practicing 10-20 years to become full time researchers (and visa versa). Universities accept these people with open arms because they bring with them a wealth of knowledge regarding the practical side of medicine and healthcare in general. They are thus seen as an asset to any medical research project including clinical trials. Can the same be said about an acupuncturist? They also bring with them years of experience and thus they should also be a major asset to any acupuncture clinical trial. But I am afraid not!

Why? Medical doctors have a multitude of tools (drugs, surgical procedures, diagnostic kits etc.) at their disposal to diagnose and treat all types of medical conditions. Yes, there is medical conditions that cannot be treated and to say nothing about the issue of misdiagnosis. But when will it now be a conflict of interest? When they publish a positive clinical trial of a specific medical intervention in which they have a vested interest. e.g owning shares in the company producing the medical intervention (financial interest) or if they have been staunch supporters of this intervention during their years of practice (emotional interest). Just imagine that you have been prescribing a specific intervention to hundreds of patients over a long period of time, and now you have to face them with a negative clinical trial result – that will be difficult. The former is easy to declare whilst the latter might be slightly more difficult.

Doctors also tend to focus on a specific disease e.g. cancer and will perform research with the existing tools at their disposal but also try to find new tools in order to improve the risk-benefit profile of the disease treatment. Thus, for a doctor there is the possibility that they might run into a conflict of interest but due to the multitude of medical interventions this is by no means a given.

What about acupuncture practitioners turned researchers? An acupuncturist only has one tool at their disposal to treat all medical conditions. I can hear them say; but we stick needles in different places and depths etc. depending on the medical condition! Yes, but the fact remains that they can only stick needles into people – and that is a single intervention. So is this a conflict of interest by default? I would argue, yes, it is like having a single drug, packaged differently or in different doses, to treat all medical conditions. If you have treated hundreds of patients for various medical conditions and now suddenly you publish a negative clinical trial, you will not only be red faced when you run into your former (current) patients – who paid for their treatment – they might even sue you for misleading them. As an acupuncturist you cannot allow acupuncture to be ineffective for a specific medical condition otherwise people might start to query the effectiveness, in general, of the only tool you have. And not only that, they might start to question the unscientific principles that acupuncture is based on! And this, no acupuncturist want and hence they will have a conflict of interest by default – no matter what medical condition they aim to treat.

Likewise, if you have been emotionally and financially invested in acupuncture as a cure-all for 10-20 years it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to publish a negative result. In addition, the acupuncture fraternity is a very tight knit community, where negative results are frowned upon because of vested interests – surely they will expel you from this community if you publish negative results and thereby question the only tool that they have?

Keeping the above in mind, how do acupuncture researchers go about conducting clinical trials? An example: Prof Smith and Bensoussan, both at the NICM, are currently registered as practicing acupuncturists. This means that they can legally practice acupuncture and because they have been active for decades they are also well known and respected in the acupuncture fraternity. It is unknown if they’re still actively practicing or maybe practicing part-time in someone else’s practice, or if they have a financial stake in their former or someone else’s practice. Based on the fact that they are still registered it can be expected that they have a current emotional and/or financial interest in the positive outcome of their acupuncture clinical trials.

Because of this inherent conflict of interest and due to the current strict clinical trial regulations, which makes it quite difficult (although not impossible) to fabricate or falsify data, they target the next best thing which is the design of their clinical trial e.g. the A+B versus B design. But it doesn’t stop there. As soon as the clinical trial give a neutral (and thus negative) result, which in their books doesn’t happen very often, the results will be inflated to make it sound positive (another example here). Why? because they must protect the single tool that they have, they must keep the acupuncture fraternity happy and they must protect themselves against potential lawsuits from former (current) patients or a decrease in patient numbers (and thus financial income). On top of that – how would the media and the public react to an acupuncture clinical trial if the lead researcher declare that they have their own acupuncture clinic?  Surely this is a conflict of interest and it must be declared as such?

So what is the main difference between a doctor and an acupuncturist? A doctor has a multitude of medical interventions and might have a conflict of interest – but this is not a given. An acupuncturist has one intervention only and therefore they have a conflict of interest by default –  this is a given and one which they never seem to declare!

Forthcoming attractions: Currently the biggest ever complementary medicine clinical trial in Australia is being conducted by Prof Smith. This large trial is looking at the effectiveness of acupuncture on IVF outcomes and was branded a waste of money in the media when the NHMRC announced that they granted $600k for this project. Question is; when they publish the (inevitably positive) results will they also declare to have a conflict of interest? For some reason, I strongly doubt it.

What can you do about all of this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then 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.