Honest Universe

Superstition, pseudoscience, and scepticism

New Zealand Skeptics Conference: Fighting Pseudoscience

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Over the weekend, I attended the New Zealand Skeptics Conference at Auckland University. It was a great weekend, with consistently good speakers. Not only did we have the hosts of the popular Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast and George Hrab from the Geologic podcast over from America, we also had a lot of fantastic local speakers like Nicola Gaston and Michelle Dickinson (Nanogirl).

If you weren’t able to attend and want to know what you missed, the conference program is currently still available online. I think the website will be reused for next year’s conference in Christchurch though so that won’t last forever.

As well attending some really great talks, I was also able to meet a lot of people who I’d previously only spoken to online. Nicola, Michelle, Jonny, Will, and everyone else I met over the weekend, it was wonderful to meet you all! I was also rather honoured to be given the “Skeptic of the Year” award at the conference dinner, for my consumer advocacy work and for helping to found the Society for Science Based Healthcare.

If you have a close look at the conference program, you might notice that I was scheduled to hold a workshop on “Fighting Pseudoscience” on the Saturday afternoon. As I have done with my previous talk at Auckland Skeptics in the Pub, I’d like to put my slides from this up online. Here they are:

If you view them on Google Drive (click the “Google Slides” link in the lower right) you’ll also be able to see my notes for each slide.

I think the workshop went really well, there was a lot of good discussion with the audience and I hope I was able to motivate some of them enough to make complaints of their own. Unfortunately I was only able to get through a single example in the time I had instead of the four I had prepared, but that was due to the time spent in discussion with the audience so it wasn’t really a problem.

Siouxsie was kind enough to get a few copies of the Ponsonby News (which it’s always fun to hear her rant about on the Completely Unnecessary Skeptical Podcast) to pass around the audience, and a few people found advertisements in the health section that seemed likely to be misleading.

There were also a couple of copies of the Advertising Standards Authority’s Codes Booklet that I was able to pass around the audience (thanks to Lisa Taylor for letting me borrow her code booklet for this). A few people asked me afterwards how they could get one of these booklets. One option would be to email the ASA to ask for one or to tick the box asking if you’d like one when you submit a complaint online. Another option is to print the PDF yourself. The ASA’s codes are all available on their website too, so don’t feel like you have to print the PDF if you’re happy to use an online reference.

Finally, everyone who attended my talk got a copy of a “Complaining Cheat Sheet” that I’d put together for the Society for Science Based Healthcare (thanks to Nancy Lan for helping me a lot with the design). The idea behind this was that it can feel like quite a task to go through the ASA’s codes to find out which sections of which codes an ad might violate, especially if you’re not already familiar with them. This cheat sheet can serve as a quick reference to some of the most commonly violated sections of the ASA’s codes, as well as a guide to how to prepare and submit a complaint.

I’ve embedded the complaining cheat sheet below, and it’s available via the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s website: Complaining Cheat Sheet

Please download it, print it, share it widely, and most importantly use it. It was made to make it easier for anyone to complain about misleading advertising in New Zealand, so the next time you see an ad that you think is misleading, instead of just being annoyed try complaining. Together we can make New Zealand a safer environment for consumers.

Copper & Magnetic Healing: How to Respond to Complaints

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Last Saturday, I was in a store that had a display on their counter advertising copper and magnetic jewellery:

Copper & Magnetic Healing

As you may be aware, claims that copper jewellery are able to help with arthritis are relatively common, although the evidence is pretty negative. The claim about magnets attracting iron in your blood and thereby increasing circulation is pure pseudoscience though. Usually, if I do something about an ad like this, I lay a complaint directly with the Advertising Standards Authority. This time though, I thought I’d try directly contacting the store to see if they’d fix this situation without requiring any regulatory intervention.

You can read the full email I sent to the company at the bottom of this post, but essentially I described the regulations around claims in advertising needing to be substantiated, and gave some evidence that these claims probably weren’t substantiated. Here’s what I recommended as a course of action:

I understand that these claims were likely supplied to [your store] by the supplier of the copper and magnetic jewellery, and that no one at [your store] has had any intention of misleading your customers. I recommend that you immediately remove the “Copper & Magnetic Healing” display, and contact the manufacturer to ask them for evidence to substantiate these claims. Unless you are in possession of such evidence, you should avoid making therapeutic claims regarding these products.

I’ve had a wide variety of responses from my ASA complaints in the past, so I wasn’t sure how I should expect this business to respond. To make sure my email wouldn’t just be ignored, I asked them to get back to me within a week to let me know what they’d do, so I could know whether or not I should complain to the ASA.

In this case, I was very impressed to hear back from them the next day to tell me that the stores had been advised to remove the displays and they would contact their supplier to ask for evidence to substantiate the claims they’d provided. They also seemed to realise that the chance of the supplier being able to give the kind of evidence required was pretty slim.

A couple of days after that, I heard back from them again to confirm that, as expected, their supplier was unable to provide evidence that would substantiate the claims made about the jewellery. Because of this, they told me that from now on they would only advertise them as jewellery – not “healing jewellery” or anything like that.

I’m very happy to have seen such prompt and responsible action taking following a complaint. I hope this can serve as an example to other businesses.


If you see a therapeutic claim advertised somewhere, and you think it might not be backed up appropriately by scientific evidence, perhaps consider doing something about it. A good start could be to just ask for evidence. If you’d like them to remove a claim if it turns out not to be backed up by evidence, you can recommend that they do this (and your recommendation will be backed up by the Fair Trading Act).

If they refuse, which I would hope is unlikely, then you could lay a complaint with the ASA. The ASA requires that advertisers must be able to substantiate therapeutic claims that they make; it’s not up to you to prove them false, it’s up to advertisers to prove them correct.

If you do contact a business about a claim they’re making, I would suggest a few things:

  1. Be polite. This costs you nothing, and if you come across as rude or antagonistic it’s not going to lead to a productive exchange.
  2. Recommend a course of action. Ideally make it something that is easy for the business to do.
  3. Give an ultimatum. This should still be polite, but I would recommend asking the business to tell you what they’re going to do within a certain timeframe (such as one week) so you’ll know whether or not it’s necessary to bring their claim to the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority.

If you’re interested in doing something about a dodgy medical claim, the Society for Science Based Healthcare can help you to understand the regulation and put together a complaint.


This is the email I sent to the store on Sunday, with the name of the store removed:

To whom it may concern,

I was in [your store] earlier today, and I noticed a display for copper and magnetic bangles and rings on the counter (see photograph attached).

This display contained a number of therapeutic claims about the products. As I hope you are aware, the Advertising Standards Authority requires that all therapeutic claims made in advertisements must be truthful and have been substantiated (see their Therapeutic Products Advertising Code Principle 2). Similarly, the Fair Trading Act 1986 Section 12A states that unsubstantiated representations must not be made in trade.

To my knowledge, none of the therapeutic claims made on the display are substantiated.

A systematic review of the evidence regarding the use of static magnets for reducing pain, published in 2007, found that “The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment.”

Relatively little research has been done on the use of copper bracelets for pain relief, but a well-designed trial published in 2009 found that “Our results indicate that magnetic and copper bracelets are generally ineffective for managing pain, stiffness, and physical function in osteoarthritis. Reported therapeutic benefits are most likely attributable to non-specific placebo effects.”

The Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint in 2013 against claims made on the Woolrest Biomag website, partly due to the fact that their claims that the magnets in their products can increase circulation by “drawing trace elements, for instance, iron, towards the magnets” and by causing “blood vessels to dilate” did not appear to be supported by any evidence and were therefore likely to mislead consumers.

I understand that these claims were likely supplied to [your store] by the supplier of the copper and magnetic jewellery, and that no one at [your store] has had any intention of misleading your customers. I recommend that you immediately remove the “Copper & Magnetic Healing” display, and contact the manufacturer to ask them for evidence to substantiate these claims. Unless you are in possession of such evidence, you should avoid making therapeutic claims regarding these products.

Please reply to this email by the 23rd of November to inform me of what action you will be taking, so I will know whether or not it will be necessary for me to lay a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority to settle this matter.

Sincerely,

Mark Hanna
Society for Science Based Healthcare

Written by Mark Hanna

2014/11/21 at 5:10 pm

We Landed on a Comet

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So, last night was exciting. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) robotic spaceship Rosetta arrived at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August, after an amazing journey comprising of over 10 years and four gravity slingshots. Last night, it separated from its lander module, Philae, and sent it to touch down on the surface of the comet.

What I’ve been able to gather from watching the live stream last night and what I saw on Twitter when I woke up groggily for 2 minutes at 5:15 this morning is that not everything went to plan, but the landing seems to have been successful.

Philae (the lander) has several devices to make the landing easier. One of these is a “cold gas thruster”, a small engine to push it gently into the surface of the comet so it wouldn’t bounce off (remember the comet has extremely little gravity relative to something like the Earth or Moon). This engine failed to start working before the spacecraft separated, but the team decided to go ahead with the landing anyway.

Another device Philae has to help with the landing is a pair of harpoons to skewer the surface, but these also failed to fire. As far as I know they’re not sure yet why they failed, but Philae did make it to the surface, so the comet landing was a success.

The ESA be getting data back from Philae but I don’t think they know yet how it landed or where exactly it is relative to the landing site. There’s a danger it could be on its side, for example, which would prevent some of the experiments it’s carrying on board from going ahead. Time will tell, though.

A photo of the comet taken from Philae when it was only 3 km away has been posted to the official Twitter account:

Photo credit to European Space Agency, ROLIS camera on Philae

Photo credit to European Space Agency, ROLIS camera on Philae

UPDATE 2014/11/14

Since the landing a few other things have come to light. First, presumably because the harpoons failed to fire, Philae bounced of the surface twice. Although it bounced pretty much straight up, the comet was rotating beneath it so its final landing zone is a few hundred metres away.

Also, Philae has landed on its side. It’s still taking photographs and sending back data, so that’s good, but the fact that it’s on its side may mean that some of its experiments may not be able to go ahead. Phil Plait has a good write up explaining these updated on Bad Astronomy and Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed one on her blog the Planetary Society.

Written by Mark Hanna

2014/11/13 at 9:19 am

GirlGuiding New Zealand Has Removed “God” From Their Promise

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In July 2012, Girl Guides Australia changed the promise all Girl Guides have to make, by removing the compulsory mention of “God”. After seeing this news, I looked up the GirlGuiding New Zealand website to find if they had a similar compulsory mention, and found that they had.

Although I am obviously ineligible to be a Girl Guide, as an atheist I can understand how being told you have to make a promise to a god in order to become a member of a group could make one feel unwelcome. Similar to if I were asked to swear with my hand on a Bible, it would feel dishonest to do so. As such, it feels rather discriminatory, whether intended that way or not.

After seeing that Girl Guides Australia had made this change, I sent the following message to GirlGuiding New Zealand in July 2012:

To whom it may concern,

I was rather shocked to discover recently that your organisation includes in its promise (the recitation of which is apparently a requirement for membership) the words “with the help of my God”. While I commend the fact that, right after mentioning this on your site, it is specified that members of other religions may alter the wording (http://www.girlguidingnz.org.nz/what-we-do/promise-law/) to better suit their specific religion, I’m rather concerned that this seems intended to either discriminate against or actively discourage irreligiosity and atheism in your membership.

After the recent news that Girl Guides Australia have removed (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-07-05/girl-guides-drop-queen-god-from-promise/4113022) any compulsory mention of “God” from their Guide Promise, I’m hopeful that you might follow in their exemplary footsteps. I’ve never been given any other reason to believe that your organisation might harbour such an inappropriate agenda, and as such I fully expect that this is simply an anachronistic artifact from an old tradition. I thought I might suggest that, in light of the change made by Girl Guides Australia, you might consider that it is time for your organisation to make a similar change.

Sincerely,
Mark Hanna

A week later, I received the following response from Susan Coleman, the CEO of GirlGuiding New Zealand:

Dear Mr Hanna

Thank you for your email regarding the inclusion of the words “with the help of my god” in the GirlGuiding New Zealand promise.

GirlGuiding New Zealand, Nga Kohine Whakamahiri o Aotearoa, is an organisation for girls and young women aged 5 to 18 years old, whatever their race, religion, ethnicity or background and there is no intention of discriminating against or discouraging any personal belief. The objectives of the organisation include the development of the whole girl, promoting self-confidence and growth through fun, friendship and learning experiences in life-skills, leadership and decision-making in a safe supportive environment. An individual’s beliefs, family cultures and circumstances are respected and Guiding embraces all aspects of the diversity of New Zealand society.

At this time, there is no intention to consider changing our promise.

Regards
Susan Coleman

I didn’t find that response very encouraging, although I hadn’t expected my email alone to prompt them to change their promise. Today, 2 years later, I saw a news article with the headline GirlGuiding removes God from pledge. I’d encourage you to read the whole article, but here’s the gist:

God has been removed from the promise recited by all members of GirlGuiding New Zealand, after more than a century of being mentioned.

The move, which took place in April this year, has raised barely a ripple of dissent.

I wonder if the lack of comment may be in part due to the lack of fanfare; notice that the change was made in April but this news article was published in October. This is their new promise:

I promise to do my best,
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs,
To live by the Guide Law
And take action for a better world.

For context, here is the Guide Law:

As a Guide I will try to

  • be honest and trustworthy
  • be friendly and cheerful
  • be a good team member
  • be responsible for what I say and do
  • respect and help other people
  • use my time and abilities wisely
  • face challenges and learn from experiences and
  • care for the environment.

Particularly now that the unnecessary inclusion of a god has been removed, I think this is a great thing for young girls (and the rest of us too) to aspire to.

Well done GirlGuiding New Zealand for making this change!

Written by Mark Hanna

2014/10/17 at 5:26 pm

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 2: Time for a Spring Clean

with 2 comments

In July, I wrote an article on Ethical Pharmacy Practice and Homeopathic No-Jet-Lag. In it, I described the importance of the role pharmacies play in the healthcare system, and their ethical obligation not to mislead consumers or promote ineffective healthcare products. In particular, I described an advertisement I saw in an Auckland pharmacy for a homeopathic product called “No-Jet-Lag”, and the complaint I submitted to the Advertising Standards Authority about it via the Society for Science Based Healthcare. There’s also a write up of this decision and the 2 others released at the same time on the Society’s website: Pharmacy to Remove Homeopathic Product Following Complaint

On the 9th of October, the ASA released their decision to the public. They ruled to uphold my complaint, which means the advertisement has to be removed. More importantly, in response to my complaint the pharmacy made a promise to remove the product from sale if the complaint was upheld. Here’s what they said:

We believe that the manufacturer, Miers Laboratories ought to respond to the substantive complaint that it’s [sic] representations fail to comply with the Therapeutic Products Advertsing [sic] Code.

We believe that the product is sold in many pharmacies in New Zealand and it is somewhat arbitrary that our pharmacy is the subject of the complaint.

We are interested in the outcome of the complaint and can indicate that if the Authority upholds the complaint we will remove the product from sale. In the meantime, the product has been removed from the counter and placed on a less prominent position.

I agree with their first two points. While I think pharmacies shouldn’t promote or sell healthcare products without a sound understanding of the evidence behind them and the claims made about them, I also think it’s reasonable to expect the manufacturer (who also produced the advertising in this case) to substantiate the claims. Moving the display to a less prominent position in the meantime seems like a reasonable compromise as well, although of course I’d prefer it if the product were never stocked in the first place.

I also agree with them that their inclusion in this complaint is somewhat arbitrary. For that reason I am not going to specify in this article which pharmacy it was. If you really must know then you can read the full decision on the ASA’s website. As they said, many New Zealand pharmacies sell this product and I think this complaint applies to all of them.

I also think this pharmacy’s promise to remove the product from sale in the event that this complaint is upheld, as it now has been, is the appropriate response. I think that every single New Zealand pharmacy that stocks No-Jet-Lag should follow suit. There are a lot of them. The website for this product even claims on its New Zealand Retail Outlets page that “Most chemists nationwide” stock it.

As I mentioned in my original post on this topic, and in my complaint, New Zealand pharmacists are bound by the Pharmacy Council’s Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011. Perhaps the most important part of this industry code of ethics, at least in my mind, is section 6.9:

YOU MUST:

Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

This is a very fine standard to adhere to, and I would hope that all businesses to which it could possibly apply would adhere to it as well, although realistically I know that’s not the case.


In response to the complaint, Miers Laboratories submitted a few studies to the ASA. They were pretty laughable though when you look at the sample size:

In all our research we base our work on previous studies, the first study for jet lag used 5 people, then it was 10 and at the time the accepted worldwide minimum was 12 for clinical trialOur [sic] bigger study used 19 people.

So basically “most of our studies didn’t even meet the very low minimum accepted size, and even the largest one was tiny”. Very impressive, Miers Laboratories.

The 19 person study they mention is also promoted on their website, and I pre-emptively discussed it in my complaint. It seems the Advertising Standards Complaints Board essentially agreed with my criticisms:

The majority of the Complaints Board said the statement “It really works” was an absolute therapeutic claim and, as such, required a high level of support. However, it noted the trial population in the pilot study was small, the methodology was not robust and the results had not been published or peer reviewed. The Complaints Board also noted the study was an in-house trial conducted by the Advertiser rather than independent research.

Given the weaknesses in the study, the majority of the Complaints Board said the Advertiser had not satisfactorily substantiated the claim the product “really works” and, as such, the Complaints Board said the advertisement had the potential to mislead consumers. Consequently, the Complaints Board said the advertisement did not observe a high standard of social responsibility required of advertisements of this type. Therefore, the majority of the Complaints Board ruled the advertisement was in breach of Principles 2 and 3 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code.

For context, Principle 2 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code states that:

Advertisements must be truthful, balanced and not misleading. Claims must be valid and have been substantiated.

And Principle 3 states that:

Advertisements must observe a high standard of social responsibility.

This is basically exactly the result I was hoping for, which is great. However, I was a little concerned by one part of the decision:

A minority of the Complaints Board disagreed [that the advertisement was in breach of Principles 2 and 3 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code]. It acknowledged the study sent by the Advertiser to support its claims. While it noted the issues with the study, the minority of the Complaints Board was of the view the product was not harmful and said the consequences of the product not working were not significant or serious for the consumer.

I’d expect anyone who has ever paid money for a pill to prevent jet lag would disagree with this, although it is obviously a lot more serious than something like a cancer treatment that doesn’t work. More importantly, although I do agree that it’s important to consider the severity of what happens if the product doesn’t work, I hope that the ASA will not give a free pass to misleading therapeutic advertising simply because it’s for a condition that they deem insignificant.


Now that this complaint has been upheld, the pharmacy in question has promised to remove No-Jet-Lag from sale. I hope this is the start of a spring clean for all New Zealand pharmacies that stock this product. They should follow this responsible example and take the opportunity to examine other products they have for sale – especially homeopathic products – to ensure that they are abiding by their ethical duty not to promote or supply healthcare products for which there is no credible evidence of efficacy.

You can help. Next time you see a homeopathic product in a pharmacy, ask them what the evidence for it is. If you see this particular product, ask them if they’re aware that the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against it on the basis that the evidence for it just isn’t good enough.


EDIT 2014/10/12

It’s great to see that several media outlets have picked up this story:

Movement of the Moon

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If you were up late last Wednesday, you’d have gotten the chance to watch the second total lunar eclipse this year. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth moves directly between the Moon and the Sun, therefore blocking the light to the Moon and making it turn dark.

This is very cool to watch, especially if you get a good look at the Moon during totality, when it is in the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow known as the umbra. At this point, the only sunlight reaching the Moon is that which is refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere. For the same reason as why sunrises and sunsets appear a lovely reddish colour, this light is also quite red, and as the Moon reflects some of this light back at us it appears a dim bronze colour.

This is one of my favourite space facts, and I find it quite poetic – you’re looking at the reflected light of all the sunrises and all the sunsets in the world, all at once. There are many spectacular photos of this effect online if you care to search for them too. But this is not what I want to write about in this article.

If you were watching Wednesday’s eclipse from Auckland, as I was, you’d probably have been disappointed to see that it was quite cloudy for the duration of totality. However, you were probably able to get a good view of the first part of the eclipse, when the Moon is moving into the outer part of the Earth’s shadow known as the penumbra.

Greg O’Beirne managed to put together a great compilation of this part of the eclipse:

Photo by Greg O'Bierne

Photo by Greg O’Beirne

As you can see, it looks rather like the Moon is having a bite taken out of it. In this compilation the position of the Moon is held roughly constant but in reality it’s the Moon that is moving here. During a lunar eclipse, we are given the rare opportunity to directly observe the Moon’s orbital motion.

Because the Earth is spinning, the Moon always appears to move across the sky from east to west (in the southern hemisphere, this effectively means it is moving right to left). The time it takes to move across the sky varies with the time of year, but it takes roughly 25 hours to do a full circuit.

Because of the Earth’s spinning, generally the only way we can usually observe the Moon’s orbital motion is by looking for it at the same time every day. If you do this, then instead of watching it migrate east to west over a day, you’ll see it move slowly from west to east over a couple of weeks.

In order to watch the Moon move directly, it would be possible to watch it move relative to a stationary background object. The stars could serve this purpose while the Moon is up at night, although generally it’s bright enough that it’s very difficult to see any nearby stars. The occultation of Saturn earlier this year, which I watched from home through my telescope, gave me a chance to observe its movement against the relatively stationary planet. Like with the stars though, you simply wouldn’t be able to observe this with your naked eye.

A solar eclipse is also an opportunity to directly watch the Moon’s orbital motion, as we can compare it to the Sun, as its movement is fairly negligible for everyday purposes when compared with that of the Moon. The problem there, of course, is that you can’t look directly at it without damaging your eyes. A lunar eclipse gives you the same opportunity except, unlike a solar eclipse, you can watch it directly.

If we ignore the Earth’s spin, then both the Sun and the Earth’s shadow (which, of course, must always be directly opposite one another) each take one full year to move the whole way across the sky. Because the 365 1/4 days in a year is very close to the 360 degrees in a circle, we can say that they move roughly 1 degree every 24 hours, or half a degree every 12 hours. This sounds pretty slow, but half a degree is roughly the size of the full Moon so it isn’t entirely negligible.

It takes about an hour for the Moon to move fully into the outer part of the Earth’s shadow, so in this time it moves roughly 1/12th the diamater of the Moon. For the sake of simplicity, let’s ignore this motion as well. Below I’ve put together a (rather clumsy and very imprecise) animated gif, using the images from Greg O’Beirne’s great compilation as its frames, to show this motion of the Moon holding the position of the Earth’s shadow roughly constant:

Lunar Eclipse Oct 2014 Animation

If you want to view this for yourself, the next lunar eclipse visible from New Zealand isn’t too far away. You may have read that there won’t be another total eclipse visible from New Zealand until 2018, but on the 4th of April 2015 there will be a partial solar eclipse in the evening where you’ll be able to see this. In the meantime, have a look up at the sky occasionally and notice where the Moon is (using landmarks as a guide to remember its position will help). If you make it habitual to do this at a specific time (I do it every day when I leave for work, for example) then you’ll be able to watch the Moon’s slow movement backwards across the sky.

Written by Mark Hanna

2014/10/11 at 11:46 am

ACC and Acupuncture 2

with 2 comments

The ACC has responded to my Official Information Act request that I mentioned in my last post on ACC and acupuncture. Here’s what I asked for in my request:

Dear Accident Compensation Corporation,

In response to an Official Information Act request from Kevin McCready in June (https://fyi.org.nz/request/1749-continue…), Mrs Koleti Vae’au wrote that:

In 2011, ACC’s research team conducted a literature review of the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain. It found the most convincing evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture related to the treatment of chronic neck pain and the improvement of pain and mobility in chronic shoulder pain. In terms of other injuries, evidence of the benefits of acupuncture was either inconclusive or insufficient.

I have been unable to find this particular review by searching on the ACC website, although I have found other reports such as the “Effectiveness of acupuncture in selected mental health conditions” brief report from earlier this year.

Also, if ACC has any guidelines for carrying out these reviews, could you please provide me with a copy of or link to these guidelines.

Sincerely,

Mark Hanna

Here’s a (direct PDF download) link to the mental health review that I mentioned in my request: Effectiveness of acupuncture in selected mental health conditions – Brief report [2014]

The brief conclusion of this report is:

There is limited good quality evidence to conclusively determine acupuncture’s efficacy in treatment of mental health conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia, Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, ACC released their review of the evidence for acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain in response to another OIA request. That review can be read in full here: The efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain

Here’s what ACC said in response to my OIA request yesterday:

There are only two ACC literature reviews on the efficacy of acupuncture. These are:

The efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain.

I understand from your email of 25 August 2014 that you have accessed a copy of this report and therefore do not require another copy.

Effectiveness of acupuncture in selected mental health conditions — Brief report 2014.

As you have identified, this is available on the ACC website.

In regard to ACC guidelines on literature reviews, ACC follows standard practice when undertaking literature reviews, and there are no ACC specific guidelines on this practice.

After my previous post on this topic, I was contacted by Ross Mason who told me about a similar OIA request he had made some years ago. One interesting thing I read in their response to him, which was written by the same person as their response to me, was this (bolded emphasis mine):

2. Evidence of the efficacy of the use of CAM treatments/programmes;

Schedule 1 Part 1 sections 1 & 2 of the [Accident Compensation] Act detail ACC’s liability to pay for the cost of treatment. These provisions in part include the requirement that the treatment is necessary and appropriate and of the quality required for the purpose. ACC has always required that new treatments for which payment is requested are supported by evidence of effectiveness. However it must be noted that there are many treatments that treatment providers utilise that do now have a well established evidence base.

Examples of the research that ACC does in considering new treatments can be found on the “For Providers” section of the ACC website – http://www.acc.co.nz/about-acc/research-sponsorship-and-projects/research-and-development/evidence-based-healthcare-reports/index.htm

If requested to fund CAM, ACC would require that evidence be provided for the treatments [sic] efficacy. ACC evaluation process of the evidence is detailed on the ACC website in the “For Providers, Clinical Best Practice” section – http://www.acc.co.nz/for-providers/clinical-best-practice/index.htm.

The first link, to the “Evidence based healthcare reports” page, seems to provide a little more detail on what was described as “standard practice” in response to my request:

Evidence based reviews

These reports assess the effectiveness and safety of health interventions. They are developed according to a robust methodology similar to that used by the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (external link) and the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (external link). This includes systematic searches of the literature, critical appraisal of existing research evidence and peer review by clinical experts.


ACC has funded acupuncture treatments for over a decade, spending over $24 million on it last year alone.

In August 2011, ACC reviewed the evidence regarding the efficacy of acupuncture for musculoskeletal pain and found that (emphasis mine):

The evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture is most convincing for the treatment of chronic neck and shoulder pain. In terms of other injuries, the evidence is either inconclusive or insufficient.

In March 2014, ACC published a brief report on the effectiveness of acupuncture in selected mental health conditions didn’t find enough good quality evidence to provide any recommendation.

No other review of the evidence for acupuncture has been undertaken by ACC. Despite this, over the last year ACC spent significant amounts of public money on acupuncture treatments for other medical issues such as burns ($30,002), lacerations and puncture wounds ($309,458), and fractures and dislocations ($591,613).

In the past year, they spent $22,592,552 on acupuncture for soft tissue injuries. Unfortunately, their recent response to another OIA request shows that they haven’t been keeping track of which body parts were treated, so we’ve been unable to determine how much of this substantial amount of money was spent on treatments that ACC’s own findings say are not supported by evidence.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, ACC’s funding scheme for acupuncture simply isn’t consistent with the evidential requirements they claim to require, and is instead largely based on the pre-scientific notions (to quote the author of their 2011 review) detailed in their Acupuncture Treatment Profiles document. When these issues were raised with the previous ACC minister Nick Smith in 2009 he promised a review of their effectiveness would be undertaken, but in the 5 years since then no such review has taken place. This latest response of theirs has only made me feel even more strongly about my recommendations for change:

I think ACC needs to review its funding scheme for acupuncture. I think their approach to this should start with reviewing their Acupuncture Treatment Profiles document, ensuring that the only treatments contained within it are those supported by rigorous evidence, and purging pseudoscientific claims from it. If they find they need to undertake further reviews of the evidence for the use of acupuncture for particular indications, then they should do that before approving funding for it.

I think ACC should then only agree to pay for acupuncture treatments that are aligned with their Treatment Profiles document, which they should commit to reviewing at regular intervals to keep it in line with the latest evidence (I’m not sure what time interval would be most appropriate, and I understand that there is a cost involved in that work).

I’m not sure, but it’s possible some changes to legislature may be required before this becomes a reality, but if that’s the case those changes should happen. A government body should not be bound by law to fund healthcare that is not supported by evidence.

There’s one last thing I’d also like to see, although I really feel like this is a long shot. I think ACC should take an active role in discouraging healthcare practice based on the “pre-scientific notions” described in their 2011 review. I think they should do this by distancing themselves from those acupuncturists who promote it and who base their practice on it, by refusing to grant them status as registered ACC practitioners if they are found to rely on it.

Written by Mark Hanna

2014/09/04 at 5:11 pm

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