Bad Science Case Study: Dog Bones

Bad Science Case Study: Dog Bones

The New Zealand Herald and Jimbo’s have provided us with an idealised “bad science” case study.

Today, the Herald published an article about a “trial” published by pet food manufacturer Jimbo’s: No bones about bones

The trial was intended to evaluate how eating bones affects the dental health of dogs. Thankfully the article makes it pretty clear why Jimbo’s would be looking into this, although it reads more like a quote from a press release than the declaration of a conflict of interest that it really is:

Jimbo’s sells over 300 tonnes of bones per year which help thousands of cats and dogs keep healthier teeth.

This trial seems rather special in that it’s a rare composite of just about every aspect of poor methodology all put together at once. I think it makes for an excellent “bad science” case study, which could hopefully be a good resource for journalists who might find themselves in danger of reproducing the Herald’s results.

And it’s not just journalists that can benefit from understanding this. Being aware of the potential shortcomings of research can make everyone more savvy when it comes to parsing science news. None this is particularly hard to understand at a high level.

Pared way down, designing a study is about two things:

  1. Finding a way to test a hypothesis by attempting to disprove it.
  2. Taking measures to account for as many sources of bias as possible.

Jimbo’s failed the first of those objectives spectacularly, but at least they were up front about it:

The Jimbo’s Dental Trial was carried out because we wanted to prove what we already knew – that a species-appropriate diet including a bone a day can improve or maintain dental health in our furry friends.

Jimbo’s Dental Trial – 2015

It’s roughly possible to pair up different aspects of good methodology to the source of bias they’re trying to account for. For example, having a large sample size is a way to diminish the effects of random variation within your sample population.

Here’s a list of the methodological problems with this Jimbo’s trial, and the corresponding sources of bias that they aren’t accounting for:

  • Source of bias
    Publication bias, where positive results are more likely to be published than negative results.

    How you should account for it
    Register your trial ahead of time, and ensure it gets published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    As far as I can find, the trial wasn’t pre-registered. Instead of being published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, it was published as a PDF on the Jimbo’s website.

  • Source of bias
    Random variation within your sample population.

    How you should account for it
    Have as large sample size as possible. Of course larger sample sizes makes research more expensive, but if your sample is too small you won’t be able to reliably detect an effect.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    The study used a sample of eight dogs. This was further reduced to seven after one dropped out for not following the diet.

  • Source of bias
    Regression to the mean, changes unrelated to the experiment, Hawthorne effect etc.

    How you should account for it
    Have an appropriate control group, for example a group of dogs not on the special diet.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    The study did not include a control group.

  • Source of bias
    Bias, unconscious or otherwise, from researchers making measurements.

    How you should account for it
    Blind researchers making measurements so they don’t know whether the participant they’re evaluating was in the control group or the experimental group.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    There was only an experimental group, so blinding was not possible.

    2016/10/30 Edit: Thomas Lumley has made a good point about blinding over on StatsChat. That is, the researcher evaluating the photos could have been blinded to whether each one was a “before” photo or an “after” photo. The study doesn’t mention if this was done, however.

  • Source of bias
    Differences between the populations in the control and experimental groups.

    How you should account for it
    Randomise which group each study participant ends up in.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    There was only an experimental group, so randomisation was not possible.

The trial also lacked any sort of statistical analysis. Without a control group, there isn’t really a good way to do this, but it seems like Jimbo’s didn’t even try to figure out how likely it was that their result was a false positive.

I always find it amusing to see research that fails so spectacularly to be well-designed, as this has, but there’s a downside as well. This was picked up completely uncritically by the New Zealand Herald. In fact their story reads to me more like an advertisement or press release than the critical analysis I’d expect to see from a high quality media outlet.

Although in the end, the Herald did one thing right. They provided a link to the original research so all of its readers could see for themselves how spectacularly bad it is.

A Sceptical Guide to DHB Voting

A Sceptical Guide to DHB Voting

I’ve looked into this year’s district health board candidates to help you keep quacks off your DHB this election.

Unless you live in Southland, this year you probably get to vote for several spots on your local district health board. With the move to DHBs making decisions about water fluoridation, there’s a danger that some of the candidates standing could be anti-fluoride or worse. And if they’re crafty, they likely won’t make that clear in their candidate profile that you get in the post with your voting papers.

Over the past week or so, I’ve looked through all the profiles for DHB candidates throughout the country, and followed up on anything that looked like a red flag for quackery. While many candidates looked great, I also found some that you probably don’t want to vote for such as a homeopath who’s been censured for false advertising, someone who promotes detox diets through her business and claims they can cure allergies and other diseases, and a chiropractor who claims to treat babies for colic. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We’re also lucky that the anti-fluoride lobby group Fluoride Free New Zealand has published a survey with responses from many council and DHB candidates regarding their thoughts on fluoride. It’s very kind of them to have spared a thought for sceptics and published such a useful resource.

All the information I found has been compiled, with the help of Hayden Donnell, into a voting guide over on The Spinoff. If you still have your DHB candidates to vote for, have a read before you do:

Quack hunt: Our vital tool for stopping anti-science crackpots infiltrating your DHB

Strip searches in prisons – what is reasonable?

Strip searches in prisons – what is reasonable?

I’ve written two articles as a guest blogger for the NZ Council of Civil Liberties, on how the Department of Corrections conducts strip searches in prisons. The first of these articles has just been published, the second will be up in a few days. You can read the full article over on their website: Strip searches in prisons – what is reasonable?

Here’s an excerpt:

In New Zealand prisons, corrections officers conduct strip searches of prisoners in order to find contraband items such as drugs and weapons. Recently, the Department of Corrections has released information regarding how they have been conducting strip searches in response to two requests made under the Official Information Act. I believe their response to these two requests is cause for concern.

Strip searches are clearly invasive, and it’s clear that there is the potential for them to be abused, so it’s important that there are appropriate restrictions placed on them in the law and that the Department of Corrections is held accountable for administering them appropriately.

In March, an OIA request regarding strip searches in New Zealand prisons was sent to the Department of Corrections by Ti Lamusse, a member of the activist group No Pride in Prisons.

I happened to see this request, which was made publicly via the website FYI.org.nz, and the response to it raised more questions in my mind. Mx Lamusse’s request asked several questions, two of which were:

  • How many strip searches are conducted?
  • How many strip searches find anything?

Corrections released month by month data for the number of strip searches conducted and the number of contraband items found through strip searches, from June 2011 until June 2015…

Keep reading

Colloidal Silver Blues

Colloidal Silver Blues

Don’t be fooled, colloidal silver sprays and creams won’t benefit your health.

In the continuing trend of the New Zealand media advertising ineffective health products as though it’s news, stuff.co.nz has published an article pushing colloidal silver for treating infections and skin conditions.


EDIT 2016/06/16: Last night I emailed the editorial team at stuff.co.nz with my concerns about this article. This morning they have responded to my complaint by withdrawing the article and replacing it with a correction. I think this is a commendable response. Here is part of the message I received in response this morning:

Your concerns were justified. The article clearly fell a long way below our editorial standards. We have moved to retract the article and replace it with an apology. You can read that at this link.

Geoff Collett, National Life & Style editor


The article quotes a naturopath and sales representative from Skybright Natural Health, a company that sells colloidal silver products, saying that:

Ionic colloidal silver is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. It supports the immune system when the body is under attack and micro-organisms cannot build up resistance to it.

It’s also completely safe for every single person in the family to use, babies included.

Skybright1

What the article doesn’t tell you is that there’s no evidence colloidal silver can do any of that. And we’ve known this for quite some time. In 1999, the FDA issued a rule on colloidal silver stating that:

all over-the-counter (OTC) drug products containing colloidal silver ingredients or silver salts for internal or external use are not generally recognized as safe and effective and are misbranded.

Over-the-Counter Drug Products Containing Colloidal Silver Ingredients or Silver Salts | Final rule by the FDA

And despite that rule being 17 years old now, the state of the evidence remains unchanged. America’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCAM) has a rather succinct “bottom line” on colloidal silver products, last assessed as up to date in September 2014:

How much do we know about colloidal silver?

There are no high quality studies on the health effects of taking colloidal silver, but we do have good evidence of its dangers.

What do we know about the effectiveness of colloidal silver?

Claims made about the health benefits of taking colloidal silver aren’t backed up by studies.

What do we know about the safety of colloidal silver?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that colloidal silver isn’t safe or effective for treating any disease or condition.

Colloidal Silver | NCCAM

Colloidal silver has been on my radar for quite some time now. Here in New Zealand, it’s been promoted for various conditions: predominantly infections and skin conditions, but also extending as far as cancer. The evidence for its efficacy is equally absent for all of these claims.

I’m aware of three New Zealand companies that have been challenged on their colloidal silver health claims via complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority: Colloidal Health Solutions, Salud New Zealand, and Liquid Pearl. None of these advertisers were able to provide evidence to support the health claims they were making. (For full disclosure, I gave advice to the complainants for two of those complaints.)

In 2013, I got in touch with another company promoting colloidal silver products in New Zealand, “Health House”. I wanted to know what evidence they had to back up the claims they were making. In particular, I wanted to know if they had any evidence that came from the product being tested in vivo, i.e. in a living organism.

Much of the evidence used to back up health claims about colloidal silver products comes from in vitro testing, as opposed to being tested in people or animals. This is dangerous; many many potential new drugs may appear effective in in vitro tests but then turn out to be ineffective or worse, unsafe, when tested in animals or people. So if we rely on this low quality evidence to make health decisions, we run the risk of using ineffective and/or harmful products.

Unsurprisingly, the response I received from Health House was that that they don’t have any credible evidence to back up their claims. As well as telling me this, they also decided to send me a list of (anonymised) customer testimonials.

In my opinion, this is a very deceitful tactic. Relying on incredibly low level evidence to back up health claims, and promoting them alongside testimonials which can be both misleading and very convincing, is not an ethical way to promote a healthcare product or empower patients to make informed decisions. That said, it is also a very common tactic among promoters of colloidal silver and other ineffective health products.

Using health testimonials in advertising is prohibited in the Medicines Act for this very reason, although that provision is hardly observed and barely enforced.


As well as saying colloidal silver can treat various conditions, promoters like Skybright also claim it is safe. In the quote for the stuff.co.nz article, Skybright even said it was safe for use on babies. As far as I’m aware, that’s essentially true, but with one big caveat. The reason it’s true is that it’s only legal to sell colloidal silver in New Zealand if it’s at too low a concentration to have any effect.

In 2003, then Minster of Health Annette King answered a question about colloidal silver from Rodney Hide (quoted in part):

Rodney Hide: is Medsafe permitting colloidal silver manufacturers and promoters in New Zealand to distribute material containing therapeutic claims; if so, why; if not, what has it done to stop such distribution?

Annette King: No. Distributing material containing therapeutic claims for colloidal silver products would breach the Medicines Act 1981… Colloidal silver products containing less than 10 parts per million of silver do not need consent to distribute under the Medicines Act providing no therapeutic claims are made. Therefore, once references to therapeutic claims have been removed and as long as the product contains less than 10 ppm of silver, there is nothing to prevent these products being advertised again.

5463 (2003). Rodney Hide to the Minister of Health | New Zealand Parliament

Even if colloidal silver was able to treat infections, at a concentration as low as 10 ppm it would be surprising if it had any effect. Luckily, those effects you’ll be missing out on include your skin turning permanently blue.

I’m not joking. It’s called argyria. Your skin turns blue and stays that way, and it can be caused by taking too much colloidal silver. It looks like this:

Argyria | Paul Karason

That’s a photo of Paul Karason, probably the most famous sufferer of argyria caused by colloidal silver. More cases of harm caused by colloidal silver can be found documented on the website whatstheharm.net. One sufferer of argyria caused by colloidal silver, Rosemary Jacobs, has written about the dangers of colloidal silver and the ignorance of some naturopaths promoting it.

While legally sold colloidal silver products aren’t likely to be harmful, there is a real potential for harm if you’re going to make your own colloidal silver. DIY “make it yourself” colloidal silver kits aren’t hard to find for sale online, including on sites like Trade Me. I honestly do worry that someone is going to read that it’s safe for babies, and wind up using some colloidal silver someone made at home which is far more concentrated than 10 ppm.


On a lighter note, it just so happens that my favourite bit of New Zealand pseudoscience comes from an ad for Skybright’s colloidal silver cream, so of course I just have to share it here. When you see as much quackery as I do, it helps to be able to laugh at it on occasion.

In the listing for Skybright colloidal silver cream on the NetPharmacy website (it’s a real Auckland pharmacy, not just online), the promotional text explains:

when cells become infected with a bacteria they lose a positive electron and become negatively charged

Skybright Colloidal Silver Cream | NetPharmacy

1EDIT NOTE 2016/09/27: The naturopath who was cited in the Stuff article has contacted me to say that they had left Skybright before the Stuff article was published, and that the quote has been incorrectly attributed to them. As such, I have changed the attribution to Skybright.

$26m for Acupuncture

$26m for Acupuncture

Last week, ACC’s spending on alternative therapies was in the media spotlight. There were pieces on both TV3’s Story and Stuff asking the question of whether or not this spending is justified.

This was prompted by some new information that’s been released by ACC under the Official Information Act, regarding their funding of acupuncture treatments.

ACC reports spending over $25 million per year on acupuncture, even though ACC’s reviews of the evidence for acupuncture have been largely inconclusive or negative. There were only three types of injury for which they have concluded acupuncture may be effective:

Frozen Shoulder
There is some evidence that exercise and acupuncture, compared with exercise alone, may lead to better outcomes.

The Diagnosis and Management of Soft Tissue Shoulder Injuries and Related Disorders (2004)

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.

Pragmatic Evidence Based Review: The efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain (2011, emphasis mine)

Until recently, the only available breakdown of ACC’s spending on acupuncture treatments was categorised by “injury diagnosis”. Unfortunately, this breakdown is not very useful because it lumps 94% of acupuncture spending into a single treatment category:

Cost for acupuncture treatments by injury diagnosis
Injury Diagnosis 2014/15
Amputation / Enucleation $3,798
Burns $32,062
Concussion / Brain Injury $62,738
Deafness $1,280
Dental injuries $7,015
Foreign body in Orifice / Eye $4,517
Fracture / Dislocation $662,598
Gradual Onset $76,997
Hernia $1,734
Inhalation / Ingestion $907
Laceration / Puncture Wound $317,251
Mental Injury / Nervous Shock $170
Occupational Disease $681
Other $428,645
Soft Tissue Injury $24,788,178
Total $26,388,572

Earlier this year, I met with someone from ACC to discuss what data is available that might help me answer the question of whether or not ACC’s funding of acupuncture is supported by the conclusions of their evidence-based reviews. They suggested that I ask what the top read codes are that are used for acupuncture treatment in ACC claims.

In ACC’s terminology, a read code is a five character code that denotes a specific injury type. For example, “S572.” denotes a lumbar sprain, whereas “TE532” means a toxic reaction to a bee sting.


Following this meeting, I sent another Official Information Act request to ACC. I asked for the number of accepted claims and cost of treatment of acupuncture in 2014/15 categorised by read code, and for any significant confounding factors that would make the data difficult to interpret. That was something that had been discussed at my meeting with ACC earlier, so I knew the best I was going to be able to get was an estimate, and wanted to make sure I knew just what the information I’d be given would and would not mean.

To answer the question of confounding factors, ACC explained in their response that they had categorised claims by their primary read code, and that this information isn’t able to tell me exactly how acupuncture was used in individual claims:

The read code information provided in this response records the primary read code of every claim that has received a payment for acupuncture treatment. As you [are] aware, there can be more than one read code under a single claim.

The read code information alone does not indicate how acupuncture was used in individual claims, because it is not possible to determine whether acupuncture was used in relation to the primary read code or some other read code on the claim. This would only be possible by reviewing individual claims. This is also the case with the primary body site and primary diagnosis information provided. Please take this into account when considering the data provided.

Response to Mark Hanna (19 April 2016) | ACC

The response also had a pleasant surprise, in that ACC had supplied some extra data I hadn’t asked for, in case it would assist me. This contrasts somewhat with some of the frustration I’ve felt in the past with delayed and denied requests, but I’m very happy with how they responded this time.

The extra information they provided is a breakdown of acupuncture spending by primary injury site. Unlike the injury type breakdown I’d been provided in the past, this could be very helpful in determining how much of ACC’s funding of acupuncture treatments is aligned with the findings of their own reviews of the evidence.

Since their reviews only found positive conclusions for two injury sites – neck and shoulder – it seems like it should be a reasonable first estimate to look at the proportion of ACC’s spending on just these injury sites, allowing for the charitable assumption that these were all treating chronic neck or shoulder pain, or frozen shoulder. Allowing for some amount of error because of the caveats ACC mentioned, ideally this would come pretty close to 100%.

Acupuncture payments on claims by the primary injury site (2014/15 financial year)
Primary injury site of claim Claims Paid Count Cost ($) Ex GST
Abdomen/pelvis 1,846 $715,099
Ankle 4,557 $1,705,021
Back Except Head Vertebrae <4* $2,043
Chest 899 $331,676
Ear 17 $5,691
Elbow 724 $279,223
Eye 27 $8,968
Face 338 $128,708
Finger/thumb 868 $357,476
Foot 1,064 $364,063
Hand/wrist 2,111 $814,730
Head (except Face) 426 $142,220
Hip, Upper Leg, Thigh 2,511 $894,522
Internal Organ 13 $6,466
Knee 5,029 $1,854,745
Lower Back/spine 22,865 $9,628,926
Lower Leg 1,095 $369,616
Lung 4 $2,097
Multiple Locations 55 $22,540
Neck, Back Of Head, Vertebrae 8,262 $2,982,805
Nose 39 $15,075
Other Internal Organ 9 3,127
Shoulder (incl Clavicle/blade) 9,454 $3,640,599
Toes 226 $84,162
Unobtainable 705 $276,004
Upper And Lower Arm 2,293 $863,645
Upper Back/spine 2,531 $863,912

*Small numbers were reported as <4 or <$500 in order to protect privacy

Although shoulder and neck are in the top three primary injury sites for acupuncture, together they made up just 25% of the cost of acupuncture claims to ACC. This leaves just under $20 million for claims involving other primary injury sites.

I hadn’t expected to see such a strong trend toward a single injury site that was neither shoulder nor neck, but there were more claims with the lower back as the primary injury site than there were for neck and shoulder combined.

Looking at the data for individual read codes, I found that 33% of all ACC’s spending on claims involving acupuncture had a primary read code of “S572.”, which indicates a lumbar sprain.

Because of the caveats mentioned earlier, it’s likely that not all of the $8,652,237 spent on these 20,409 claims was for acupuncture used to treat a lumbar sprain. But it certainly indicates that ACC spends a large amount of money on ACC for lumbar sprain – large enough to be measured in the millions.


ACC has evaluated the evidence for acupuncture used to treat lower back pain. Its 2004 New Zealand Acute Low Back Pain Guide* categorised acupuncture as having “Evidence of no improvement in clinical outcomes”.

*ACC’s website notes that “due to the age of this guideline, some sections may have been superseded by more recent evidence”, although as far as I can tell they haven’t published an updated guideline.

Their more recent (2011) review on acupuncture for musculoskeletal pain concluded that:

  • The evidence for the use of acupuncture in (sub)acute LBP is inconclusive
  • There is limited evidence to support the use of acupuncture for pain relief in chronic LBP in the short term (up to 3 months)
  • The evidence is inconclusive for the use of acupuncture for long term (beyond 3 months) pain relief in chronic LBP
  • There is no evidence to recommend the use of acupuncture for lumbar disc herniation related radiculopathy (LDHR)

Pragmatic Evidence Based Review: The efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain (2011)

This is hardly the sort of ringing endorsement that I’d expect to back up the spending of millions of dollars of public money each year on a treatment for lower back pain.

Until recently, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK would pay for acupuncture to treat lower back pain. But the Guardian reported in March that acupuncture for lower back pain is no longer recommended for NHS patients. The latest draft guidelines for lower back pain, which will replace the previous guidelines from 2009, involved a thorough review of the evidence and recommended not offering acupuncture at all for treating lower back pain. Its summary for acupuncture notes that:

comparison with sham acupuncture showed no consistent clinically important effect, leading to the conclusion that the effects of acupuncture were probably the result of non-specific contextual effects.

Low back pain and sciatica: management of non-specific low back pain and sciatica (draft) | National Clinical Guideline Centre

“Non-specific contextual effects” is just a more descriptive way of saying “placebo effect”.

In the last year, the New Zealand government has been under intense criticism for spending $26 million over three years on a referendum for changing the flag. More recently, the importance of funding evidence-based treatment has been emphasised in the media when reporting on Pharmac’s decision not to fund the effective, yet extraordinarily expensive, melanoma drug pembrolizumab (branded as Keytruda), estimated to cost $30 million annually.

In this context, it seems increasingly bizarre that ACC continues to spend $25 million or more each year on a treatment that they themselves have found is not supported by evidence for at least three quarters of the injuries it’s used to treat.

Misleading claims common among chiropractors

Misleading claims common among chiropractors

Most New Zealand chiropractors make misleading claims.

Through my role as the chair of the Society for Science Based Healthcare, I see a lot of misleading health claims in advertisements. Many of them are pretty clearly bogus; I’ve seen claims that drinking “harmonized water” is as good as sunscreen and that bacteria make your cells each lose a positive electron.

But not all misleading claims are obvious. Many might sound plausible, especially if you don’t know much about the therapy or if they come from someone in a position of authority. This, I think, is where they can be the most dangerous. Luckily we have rules in place to prevent this, but the complaint-based systems we rely on require cooperation from advertisers. When the rules are widely ignored, we simply aren’t protected.

In 2015 my colleague at the Society for Science Based Healthcare Mark Honeychurch and I gathered data on how common misleading claims from chiropractors are in New Zealand. We systematically searched through the first 30 pages of results of an anonymous Google search for “Chiropractor New Zealand”. For all 137 websites we found for New Zealand chiropractic clinics, we recorded the presence or absence of claims that chiropractic manipulation can help with ADHD, allergies, asthma, bed wetting, colic, or ear infections. We also looked for health testimonials used as a marketing tool.

We picked that list of conditions based on the results of successful complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, and on our failure to find credible evidence to support the claims when searching the scientific literature ourselves. We included health testimonials in our search because they can be both very convincing and highly misleading. We have legislation prohibiting them in medical advertisements, and for good reason.

Today, our results have been published in a letter to the editor at the New Zealand Medical Journal: Chronic misleading online advertising by chiropractors

Claim Quantity Proportion
ADHD 34 25%
Allergies 48 35%
Asthma 54 39%
Bed Wetting 43 31%
Colic 59 43%
Ear Infections 55 40%
Any condition 74 54%
Testimonials 48 35%
Any condition or testimonials 96 70%
Total 137 100%

Unfortunately, we weren’t surprised to find that such a high proportion of New Zealand chiropractors who advertise online make unsubstantiated claims about what they can treat. Similar research has found as high as 95% of English chiropractor websites make unsubstantiated claims.

This problem is also widespread in Australia, where the Chiropractic Board of Australia recently published a Statement on advertising addressing this problem along with several others:

Claims suggesting that manual therapy for spinal problems can assist with general wellness and/or benefit a variety of paediatric syndromes and organic conditions are not supported by satisfactory evidence. This includes claims relating to developmental and behavioural disorders, ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, asthma, infantile colic, bedwetting, ear infections and digestive problems.

Statement on advertising | Chiropractic Board of Australia

We have a Chiropractic Board here in New Zealand as well, which was set up to regulate chiropractors under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act. They have their own Advertising Policy:

All advertising must… be presented in a manner that is accurate, balanced, and not misleading

A chiropractor shall not advertise any material which relates to the chiropractor’s qualifications, practices, treatment or the premises where they practice chiropractic if the material… uses testimonials whether from patients or any other person

Advertising Policy | New Zealand Chiropractic Board

Even if we didn’t have these rules laid out in an explicit “this is for chiropractors” format, we also have the Fair Trading Act and the Advertising Standards Authority’s codes of practice both requiring that claims made in advertisements must be substantiated, and the Medicines Act prohibiting health testimonials in advertisements.

How the regulation is enforced currently is not working. Our findings make that abundantly clear. If we’re going to solve this problem, the Chiropractic Board needs to take a more active role.

The New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association’s response to our findings has been that they are “not really current now”, and “the issues had been addressed recently, and the numbers would be much different now”. However, when Mark Honeychurch re-checked all 137 sites this morning for the claims we were looking for he found that only 15 (11%) had changed in this respect. Eight of those sites had removed claims (four of them had disappeared entirely), whereas seven had claims we didn’t observe last year. The problem is not solved yet.

Here’s what I want to see the New Zealand Chiropractic Board do about this:

  1. Publish a public statement on advertising, like the Chiropractic Board of Australia did, making it abundantly clear that this behaviour is not acceptable.
  2. Take an active role in maintaining compliance, by seeking out and contacting chiropractors that are making unsubstantiated and misleading claims. We are willing to share the data we collected with the Chiropractic Board to assist this effort.
  3. Sanction any chiropractors who might continue to make misleading claims after being told to stop. It is not appropriate for a registered healthcare professional to mislead their patients – any who continue to do so simply should not be trusted to hold that position of authority.

Perhaps just as importantly, I want to see New Zealand chiropractors themselves clean up their act. Those chiropractors who already ensure that they don’t engage in this behaviour should lead the charge for change within the industry – from my vantage point it sure looks like it could use some leadership on this.

Are You an Organ Donor?

Are You an Organ Donor?

Organ donation is important. When a person dies in a way that leaves them brain dead but their other organs still viable, such as an intracranial haemorrhage in an intensive care unit, their organs can be transplanted to save others’ lives in a way nothing else can. Only a few organs, kidneys for example, can be donated by live donors. But others, like lungs and hearts, can only be given posthumously.

This is something most of us will already know, but it’s something else entirely for it to have saved the life of someone you know. I want to start this article by telling you a story.

Poppy McKay is a family friend. She’s 24 years old, and she is probably alive today because of an organ donor who is sadly not.

She was diagnosed at birth with cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disease that primarily affects her lungs and digestive system. For her whole life, she’d been in and out of hospital, having to undergo daily treatment.

In early 2012, most of her treatment was stopped as it was no longer being effective. The only option left to her, she was told, was to be assessed for a lung transplant. She was put on the active list later that year. She spent her 21st birthday on the list, and by the end of the year could barely walk up the stairs at home. Her lungs were so weak she wasn’t even able to blow into the machine to measure their function.

But then the phone rang, and the transplant coordinator said she should go to the hospital immediately because they had a pair of lungs for her. After a long operation starting in the early hours in the morning, she came out of the operating theatre with a new pair of lungs.

Since the transplant, she progressed from breathing with help from a machine, to breathing on her own, to walking with a frame, and then without one. When I see her now, you could tell me she’d never been sick a day in her life and if I didn’t know better I might believe you.

Organ donations like this are very special. They can save the lives of multiple people, but only at the cost of another life. I think it says a lot about a person, and their family, when they allow this to be done.


Are you an organ donor? When I ask that question, do you think to check your driver licence? That’s the closest thing New Zealand has to recording a person’s status as an organ donor. When you apply for a driver licence, as part of the process you are asked this question:

Would you be willing to donate organs in the event of your death?

New Zealand Transport Agency | Organ and tissue donation

You can’t apply for a licence unless you tick either “Yes” or “No” in response to this. If you tick “Yes” then the word “DONOR” will be printed on your licence. Either way, you’ll very likely consider the question answered and not worry about it for most of the rest of your life, and you might feel justified in doing that. But you’d be wrong.

When I was applying for my licence a few years ago, I noticed this text on the NZTA website (the emphasis is mine):

Ticking the ‘Yes’ box on your driver licence form only means that you have indicated your wish to be identified as an organ and tissue donor. It does not automatically mean that your organs or tissues will be donated in the event of your death. In practice, your family will always be asked for their agreement to organ and tissue donation.

If your family knows what your wishes are in regard to donation, they will be more likely to follow them through in the event of your death. Having your wishes displayed on your driver licence is just one way of making them known to your family. You should also discuss your decision with them.

New Zealand Transport Agency | Organ and tissue donation

I emailed Organ Donation New Zealand about this in 2012, to ask if there was anything I could do that would guarantee that my wish to be an organ donor would be respected if I were ever in a situation where I was a potential organ donor. I was told that my family and friends would be asked about my wishes and if they would agree to consent. I emailed them again last week and they confirmed that this answer is still true today.

I’m lucky in that my family and I are on the same page about organ donation. Having spoken to them about it recently, I can be entirely confident that they would respect my wish to be an organ donor if they ever had to. I’m sure not everyone is in the same position, although until recently I could only speculate as to how common that would be.

Last week, Andy Tookey from the organ donation lobby group GiveLife released a press release in response to information released to him under the Official Information Act. Mr Tookey was kind enough to send me the documents released to him, and gave me permission to publish them here.

The document includes a copy of the most recent audit of potential donor deaths in New Zealand. One part of this document in particular was very interesting to me, and I’ve duplicated it here:

ICU deaths 1,123
Ventilated in ICU and died with severe brain damage 367 (33% of ICU deaths)
Of these 367
Discussed with Organ Donation New Zealand 35% (129)
Organ donation mentioned 43% (159)
Organ donation formally discussed 37% (135)
Of the 135 where organ donation was formally discussed
Families agreed to donate 39% (53)

It’s that last figure in particular which I find interesting. In all the cases where organ donation was formally discussed with the family of a potential organ donor in 2015, they only agreed to it 39% of the time. The reasons the families refused the remaining 61% of the time weren’t recorded, and I could imagine in some cases they might have known their loved one did not want to be an organ donor.

For comparison, I’ve seen several figures of the proportion of NZ driver licences with “DONOR” printed on them, which all centre at around 50%*. Given the discrepancy between this and the proportion of families that agreed, it seems likely at least some of the time the family would have acted against their loved one’s wishes and prevented them from being an organ donor.


To help make sense of all this I spoke to Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan, an expert in medical law and ethics at Otago University. I asked him about what the law says about how organ donation handles informed consent, what problems he sees with the current system, and what could change so someone could be assured that their wish to be an organ donor could be respected even if their family disagrees. Here’s what he told me:

The use of organs in NZ is covered by the Human Tissue Act 2008. The Act has a number of stated purposes, the first of which is to ensure that the collection of human tissue occurs only with proper recognition of, and respect for:

  • the autonomy and dignity of the donor;
  • the cultural and spiritual needs, values, and beliefs of the deceased’s immediate family;
  • the cultural, ethical, and spiritual implications of the collection or use of human tissue; and
  • the public good associated with collection or use of human tissue.

Straight away, the potential for conflict between some of those objectives becomes obvious. How are medical staff to balance the autonomous wishes of the deceased with the beliefs of their immediate family, if those are not aligned? How is the public good of organ donation to be balanced with the “cultural, ethical and spiritual” values of those who don’t agree with organ donation?

Luckily, the Act makes it clear that those objectives are not equally weighted. As the Ministry of Health point out “The Act makes informed consent the fundamental principle underpinning the lawful collection and use of human tissue from deceased people.” [http://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/regulation-health-and-disability-system/human-tissue-act/about-human-tissue-act]

What that means is that if you have documented your wishes before you die, those wishes should be the most important determinant of what happens after death. No other authority is needed.

That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, there are a few factors that make things a bit more complicated.

1. The Act doesn’t require doctors to take your organs. Your consent authorises the salvaging of your organs, but it doesn’t make it compulsory for anyone to do so. In some ways, this discretion seems sensible. We wouldn’t, I assume, want to force doctors to harvest organs that are likely to be unsuitable for transplant. There may also be cases where evidence arises that the deceased may have changed their mind after indicating their consent. More controversially, the MoH notes that ‘the immediate family may be distressed by a decision to proceed with donation.’ How much weight should be given to that is contentious, and I’ll come back to it in a minute.

2. By far the most common way for New Zealanders to record their wishes about organ donation is via their driving licenses. Both the Act and the MoH make it clear, however, that this won’t constitute “informed consent” for legal purposes.

I can see why this would be the case. Unlike the UK’s donor card, for instance, the NZ driving license doesn’t allow people to specify which organs they would be willing to donate. (I’ve never really understood what would motivate someone to agree to donate all of their organs, but not, say, their pancreas. But ultimately, it’s their choice.)

This is problematic for a couple of reasons. One is my suspicion that most people who fill out that part of the license actually do so believing they are giving legally valid consent. If so, that’s just bad in itself; if we value autonomy (as the Act claims to) then it seems generally wrong when people do things under false beliefs. But it might also be bad in that it discourages them from taking other steps that might actually be legally significant. Why bother if you think the info on your driving license is enough?

Even if people were to recognise that the driving license doesn’t amount to “informed consent”, it isn’t entirely obvious what they could do instead. Unlike the UK and Australia, NZ doesn’t have a register where people can record their wishes. The Act provides that one could be set up, but thus far, there has been no political will to establish one.

I’m not sure whether establishing a register would be worthwhile in terms of increasing the supply of donor organs. It’s possible that it would cost too much to set up and run, and divert too much money from more worthwhile initiatives. But there may be cheaper options available that could be almost as effective.

Although they were rendered largely redundant by the Register, I still have my UK Donor Card, a wallet-sized statement of willingness to donate my organs after I die. It contains simple tick boxes to indicate views regarding specific organs.

I can’t think of any reason why something similar couldn’t be distributed in NZ, and be so constructed as to contain enough information to constitute “informed consent”.

3. The Act makes it clear that, where valid consent is obtained from the deceased, no-one else should be able to override that. As the MoH says: “The framework does not allow others to legally veto an individual’s consent”.

In practice, however, we know that immediate family (and sometimes more distant family) are routinely asked to make the decision. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just happen in NZ, but in the UK as well. It happens even in situations where the relevant law has made it clear it isn’t required.

There can be good reasons to consult the family of the deceased. As the UK NHS explains, “In the event of your death, the person closest to you (usually your next of kin) will be asked to confirm that you hadn’t changed your mind before your death.” (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/organ-donation/Pages/Donationprocess.aspx)

A lot can depend, though, on how the approach is made and the questions asked. There’s a difference between asking the family if the deceased changed their mind, and asking them for their own consent. In the UK, where it’s also worryingly common for families to override consent in this situations (500 recorded instances since 2010) various strategies are being tried out to reduce this phenomenon.

For instance, the relatives of the deceased can be provided with an information sheet, gently but clearly explaining that the deceased has consented to organ donation, and that this will be what happens unless they know of a good reason why it should not. This might not sound very different to what happens at the moment, but the hope is that it will make it clearer that it isn’t up to the family to decide what should happen, but rather, to inform the medical staff of any relevant information that they may not know.

What of the situation where the bereaved relatives are genuinely distraught at the prospect of the organs being taken? There’s no clear answer here, but my own view is that the wishes of the deceased, and the value of the potential donation, should still carry greater weight.

There are 3 reasons why I say this. First, we don’t give that sort of weight to family wishes in any other circumstances. If I refuse life-saving treatment, that refusal has to be honoured, regardless of how much my family might want me kept alive. Likewise, I can’t imagine any competent adult having their consent to treatment being invalidated on the basis that their family don’t wish them to have it.

We have, as a society, accepted the primacy of individual autonomy in just about every other medical situation. It isn’t clear why organ donation should be the exception.

Second, it isn’t clear to me that immediately bereaved people are generally in a state of mind to make properly reflective choices about such matters. Certainly, it doesn’t seem likely that they will make a better decision (in the sense of being a balanced one) than that made by the deceased themself when they set down their wishes in advance, presumably in the cold light of day.

Third – and this is important – if really we’re going to start down the road of overruling individual autonomy on the basis of the interests of other people, then let’s consider all of those interests – not only those of the immediate family, but those of the potential donor recipients. And their families. Of course, the medical staff who are seeking consent to take organs won’t have to face those people, and explain to them that – while a perfectly good organ was available – someone has just refused to let them have it.

To summarise, I’d favour 2 changes:

  1. A means should be made available for people to express their wishes about organ donation in a manner that will be regarded as legally valid consent. This could be via a register, or a donor card, or something else. This should replace the section of the driving license, which has substantial potential to be misleading with regard to its legal status.
  2. Where legally valid consent from the deceased is available, the practice of routinely seeking consent from what will frequently be traumatised, overwrought bereaved relatives should end. Instead, relatives should approached with a sensitive statement to the effect that the deceased has consented to their organs being taken, and that this is what will happen unless the relatives know of any specific reason why it should not. Of course, the possibility remains that certain families with very strong anti-donation views will lie about this, but it’s hard to imagine that being a common occurence.

Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan

I also asked Poppy, as someone who has personally been involved with organ donation, what her thoughts on this issue were:

I have an issue with people not being able to be in “control” of the last wish they could potentially have by, when unable to communicate with them, their families or loved ones can say no to organ donation.

A donor registry could be a good option. I haven’t done a lot of research around it but know it’s successful in some countries. If anything, it brings a hell of a lot more awareness, and even if we still had the same law as the driver’s license one, you would think seeing as a much more informed decision had been made to register themselves as donors, the families may not oppose it as often.

Having been in the position of needing a transplant, I obviously believe that everyone who can be a donor, should be a donor. Everyone who wants to be a donor, should be allowed to keep their wishes.

However, I have never been on the other side. Having to already deal with the fact a loved one is going to die, some people may find it too hard to then have their body “chopped” up and not be buried/cremated whole. I believe that if someone has expressed strongly enough their feelings of being a donor, their loved ones would want to honour it. More awareness needed?

My main advice for people who want to be organ donors and their families is to “have the conversation”. Make sure those who will be responsible to make the decision for you if you’re ever in that situation knows your wishes and how strongly you feel about it. Research success stories of organ donation/transplant and see how life changing it can be for up to 8 people per donor, not only life changing for them but for their families and friends.

Poppy McKay

The idea of a register is one that Andy Tookey from GiveLife has also been pushing for. In my opinion, it seems the current system is simply not robust enough. It fails to capture people without a driver licence, for example, and also isn’t enough to constitute informed consent. I don’t know if a register is the right way forward, but I do think it seems like a good suggestion and I hope it will at least be considered. There should be a way for people to be assured that their wishes regarding organ donation will be respected after they’ve died.


So, what should you take away from this article? If nothing else, remember this:

  • Your driver licence saying you’re an organ donor doesn’t mean you would be if you ever could be
  • In order for you to be an organ donor, it is important that your family understands your wishes, and that you’re on the same page. Talk to them about it.

I would also like to give my sincere thanks to Colin and Poppy for their contributions to this article. Thank you both!


* I’ve seen figures of 48.8%, 49%, and 52% over the past few days, but I haven’t found a primary source for any of them. I’ve asked NZTA for the information via the Official Information Act, but I expect it will take them a while to give it to me. Here’s a link to the OIA request on FYI.org.nz – Organ donor preference on driver licences