Alt Med Societies

May 21, 2009 at 8:39 pm (Alternative Medicine, Chiropractic, Code of Ethics, Homeopathy, Legal Chill, Nutritionism, Society of Homeopaths, SoH) (, , , , , , )

Alternative Medicine societies often claim to regulate their members, they also commonly have something that they refer to as a “Code of Ethics”. Frequently, however, Alt Med societies either have inadequate codes of ethics or fail to enforce them – making a mockery of their claims to regulate their members. They are often loath to criticise what others believe to be bad practice in their field. When others criticise particular fields of Alt Med, they are sometimes subject to legal complaints from these societies. It is unfortunate that societies choose to flex their legal muscle rather than show the evidence that supports their claims.

I have some examples of these phenomena that I would like to share with you. In October 2007, I (inexpertly) blogged about the Society of Homeopaths and their attempt to silence criticism of their regulation of members. They succeeded in having a blog post removed from Andy Lewis’s Quackometer site, only to find that many other bloggers were keen to discuss the issue. These bloggers were even keener once they realised that the SoH were intent on silencing criticism. Sometimes an attempt at Legal Chill has the opposite effect to that desired. The SoH also managed to break their own code of ethics on their own website. How embarrassing. Gimpy has more on this embarrassing story (and the next post on Gimpy’s blog dealt with a breach of the SoH code of ethics in a leaflet the society were distributing).

It’s not just a one-off. Apart from the homeopathic ethics of the SoH, there are also examples of behaviour I find distasteful from the fields of nutritionism and chiropractic. BANT, the nutritional therapist body, looks very much like a regulator. But claims not to be. While this confusion is unfortunate, what is perhaps even more worrying is that there were found to be potential conflicts of interest as BANT members were allowed to earn commission from selling tests and pills, and were under no obligation to declare this commission to the client. In typically forthright fashion, Gimpy wrote about the BANT code of ethics being changed to allow member to sell these tests and pills: here.

Then there’s the chiropractic societies. Here is a roundup of blogs and articles covering the Simon Singh case. Singh is being sued by the British Chiropractic Society (BCA) for his criticism of their inappropriate promotion of chiropractic as a treatment. The evidence for chiropractic in treating some conditions is weak. This hasn’t stopped chiropractors promoting the therapy for these conditions. Shockingly, the BCA’s own research page has eleven citations and not one is to a systematic review or meta analysis of the therapy. They managed to find three randomised controlled trials, some guidelines and a couple of reports and felt justified in titling their webpage “Research Supports Chiropractic” despite their failure to cite any of the available reviews (perhaps they should have titled it “The Research We Link To Supports Chiropractic”). I blogged this and then contacted the BCA to make sure that they were made aware of some of the systematic reviews of chiropractic that were available. I will, of course, publish any response from the BCA on my blog. I also contacted Bassett Chiropractic (members of the BCA) regarding the evidence that they use to back up their claims to help people with whiplash injuries and headaches. I will publish their response when it arrives in my inbox.

The actions of the BCA in suing Singh are reminiscent of another case. David Colquhoun was the subject, along with Andrew Gilbey, of legal threats from the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association Inc and its members. Frank Frizelle, in an editorial, provided us with the following quotes in his response to the legal threats. I think what follows is a better ending to this blog post than I could ever have managed, so I will leave the final word to Professor Frank A Frizelle via this PDF from the Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association:

The Journal has a responsibility to deal with all issues and not to steer clear of those issues that are difficult or contentious or carry legal threats. Let the debate continue in the evidence-based tone set by Colquhoun and others. I encourage, as we have done previously, the chiropractors and others to join in, let’s hear your evidence not your legal muscle.


  1. Warhelmet said,

    The alt med bodies tend to be “broad churches” in the same way that the Anglican/Episcopalian movement is. Any attempt at regulation would doubtless lead to schism and the dilution of the brand. They can’t even agree on fundamental doctrine. In the UK, another factor that needs to be considered is the attempts by some bodies to dominate their field. For example, with the failure of CORH, the SoH certainly do view themselves are preminent and are attempting to gain membership from rival bodies. Etc. Etc… Criticism of individual members would cause schism.

    There are limits to tolerance.

  2. Nash said,

    One of my relatives is a Homeopath. When I pointed out to them that Society of Homeopaths was a compnay, not a statutory body such as the GMC, they told me I was wrong. On her hoe course (Bronze Swimming Certificate – I think that’s what the BSc stands for), they were told that SoH were a superior equivalent to the GMC.
    We looked the the companies house entry for the SoH and even though it is clear they are a private company, my relative still didn’t want to believe it.

  3. Mojo said,

    “We looked the the companies house entry for the SoH and even though it is clear they are a private company, my relative still didn’t want to believe it.”

    Well, that’s just a fact, and as one of our greatest contemporary philosophers says, “facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”

  4. jdc325 said,

    @Nash: My mind boggled at the idea that on a homeopathy course, students “… were told that SoH were a superior equivalent to the GMC” – then I remembered what a homeopathy syllabus looks like. Not such a bizarre statement after all.

    @Mojo: Nice one.

    @Warhelmet: I think that you’re right in saying that “Criticism of individual members would cause schism.” These societies probably think it would cause them more problems if they criticise than if they ignore the behaviour I’ve referred to in my post. They won’t even criticise non-members: BANT had no opinion on Rath, for example.

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