ACC and Acupuncture

Over the past year or so, various Official Information Act (OIA) requests have been made via the website fyi.org.nz, which allows for these requests and their responses to be made public. I have written previously about the results of some of these requests regarding ACC and Alternative Medicine. I’ve also shared some more information on Twitter, which Thomas Lumley has documented on the StatsChat blog: Sticking it to ACC

Following my previous post on this matter I also wrote to the ACC Minister, Judith Collins, in May to outline my concerns. Here’s what I said in my email:

Dear Ms Collins,

My name is Mark Hanna. I’m a consumer advocate from Auckland with a particular interest in alternative medicine. Over the past year and a half I’ve been actively trying to reduce the amount of misinformation regarding alternative medicine so often seen in advertisements, mainly by lodging complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority.

Last year, prompted by an earlier Official Information Act request, two friends of mine submitted OIA requests of their own to the Accident Compensation Corporation inquiring as to how much funding it had provided to “alternative therapies”:

The latter request has attracted some media attention: Big bill for alternative health

In looking further into this issue, I found that in 2004 Dr Paul Hutchison submitted a number of very interesting questions to the Minister of the ACC regarding their funding of acupuncture, such as how much had been paid, how much they expected to pay in the future, and whether the treatments covered were supported by scientific evidence.

I’m also aware, largely due to its mention in the recent article, and also due to this article from 2009, that in 2009 then-ACC Minister Nick Smith said the ACC would review the effectiveness of these treatments. Unfortunately, it seems no such review has been conducted.

Piecing together the information released by the ACC regarding their funding of acupuncture, I believe it paints a rather disturbing picture. I have attached a chart constructed from the data released by the ACC in response to your 2004 questions, and their updated expenditure data released earlier this month.

Now, of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if the ACC’s funding of acupuncture were due to a strong evidence base in favour of its effectiveness and safety. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.

The earlier OIA request I mentioned asked the ACC how they measure the effectiveness of treatments that they fund. Their answer included the statement that:

With respect to processes and requirements for measuring effectiveness, Treatment Profiles have been developed for 150 common injury types. Treatment Profiles are guides to the treatment and rehabilitation services ACC expects a practitioner to provide to a client for a particular injury. They describe current ‘good practice’ and what outcomes should be achieved.

However, viewing the ACC’s Acupuncture Treatment Profiles document, I find instead that it is based on statements such as these:

  • “Acupuncture… Relieves pain by treating stagnation of Qi and Blood in the affected areas and channels”
  • “Qi is the vital force of life which… Is the material substrate of the Universe”
  • “Brain… Is considered to be the same in substance as marrow”
  • “the Kidney produces marrow”

That is only a small selection of the many statements in that document that are clearly – even blatantly – no more than pseudoscience at best. They certainly do not give the impression of science-based decision making.

In light of all this, I believe it is high time the ACC conducted a rigorous review of the evidence regarding acupuncture so as to cease funding treatment options that do not appear to be effective or science-based.

As current ACC Minister, I hope you will be able to help facilitate what seems to me like a long overdue review of the effectiveness of acupuncture and related practices as they are funded by the ACC.

Sincerely,
Mark Hanna

Here’s the chart I attached to that email:

ACC Acupuncture Spending 1994-2013

I heard back from Ms Collins on the 18th of June, you can view her response here:

Response from Judith Collins 18 June 2014

In her response, she described review ACC undertook of some of the evidence regarding acupuncture in 2011:

In 2011, ACC’s research team also 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. Evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture is not dissimilar to other physical therapies such as physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy.

Since that response, another OIA request was submitted to ACC by Mark Honeychurch, co-founder of the Society for Science Based Healthcare, asking for a breakdown of acupuncture spending by condition. To make the request easier, the categories requested were the same as those used by ACC’s Injury Statistics Tool. You can view the results from that request directly as a PDF or as a Google Spreadsheet.

The vast majority of the spending (around 94% for each of the last 2 years) was for soft tissue injuries. However, without a more detailed breakdown we don’t yet know how many of this was supported by ACC’s findings regarding the evidence for acupuncture.

Although the amount of money is piddling in comparison, I have to admit I find it rather concerning to see that, over the past decade, ACC has spend $9,000 on acupuncture for deafness.

EDIT 2014/08/30

In a discussion of this post on Facebook, Jonathan Grady raised a good point about what this might have involved. It’s still just speculation, but I thought it was worth mentioning here:

Well, I know of no evidence that acupuncture is useful in the treatment of hearing impairment per se. There’s no plausible mechanism at work. But it could well, in some instances, be used plausibly to treat tinnitus, as tinnitus has a high component of subjective influences such as mood and levels of physiological and psychological arousal (similar to perceptions of chronic pain and of “phantom limb” syndrome). Placebos have some good efficacy in the treatment of tinnitus and, as we all know, acupuncture is really not much more than a placebo treatment. But it certainly won’t help you hear any better…

Jonathan Grady, Practicing Audiologist and Consulting Expert Member of the Society for Science Based Healthcare


I currently have an outstanding OIA request with ACC, asking for their 2011 review as well as any others they’ve conducted regarding acupuncture, and any guidelines they have for conducting these reviews.

Although my request asked for “copies of or links to all literature reviews regarding the effectiveness of acupuncture for any condition undertaken by ACC”, in their initial response to my request they only identified that I had asked for “A copy of The efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain conducted by ACC’s research team”.

I’m still waiting to hear back regarding if this means it’s the only such review, or if there are others as well. However, I have found other reports on the ACC website, like this one on the Effectiveness of acupuncture in selected mental health conditions, so I suspect there should be more reviews than just the 2011 one.

Yesterday, in response to a separate request from Kevin McCready, ACC has released this 2011 review. Although the names and qualifications of the author or authors were also requested, ACC denied this part of McCready’s request and removed that information from the report:

ACC declines to provide the names and qualifications of the staff members who compiled the literature review as there is a need to protect people’s privacy. We have also been unable to identify why the release of this information would be in the public interest.

You can find the full report, minus the name of the reviewer, here: The efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain

Here are the “Key findings” of this review:

General

  • There is insufficient evidence to make a recommendation for the use of acupuncture in the management of acute neck, back or shoulder pain
  • There is emerging evidence that acupuncture may enhance/facilitate other conventional therapies (including physiotherapy & exercise-based therapies)
  • There is a paucity of research for the optimal dosage of acupuncture treatment for treating shoulder, knee, neck and lower back pain
  • Studies comparing effective conservative treatments (including simple analgesics, physical therapy, exercise, heat & cold therapy) for (sub) acute and chronic non-specific low back pain (LBP) have been largely inconclusive

Lower back

  • 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)

Neck

  • There is good evidence that acupuncture is effective for short term pain relief in the treatment of chronic neck pain
  • There is moderate evidence that real acupuncture is more effective than sham acupuncture for the treatment of chronic neck pain
  • There is limited evidence that acupuncture has a long term effect on chronic neck pain

Shoulder

  • There is good evidence from one pragmatic trial that acupuncture improves pain and mobility in chronic shoulder pain
  • There is limited evidence for the efficacy of acupuncture for frozen shoulder
  • There is contradictory evidence for the efficacy of acupuncture for subacromial impingement syndrome

Knee

  • There is no evidence to recommend the use of acupuncture for injury-related knee pain

Ankle

  • There is no evidence to recommend the use of acupuncture for ankle pain

Regarding the evidence found for neck and shoulder pain, it seems important to note a couple of caveats:

The “good” evidence for shoulder pain was from a single trial: Molsberger et al. 2010. This trial had a decent sample size of 424, and compared Chinese acupuncture to sham acupuncture.

The abstract doesn’t specify any details of the sham treatment, but the full paper describes it as involving the same number of needles and number and frequency of treatments, but the needles were placed at non-acupuncture points and inserted less than 5 mm (compared with 1-2 cm in the acupuncture group). I was glad to see one of the inclusion criteria was that participants be naïve to acupuncture, so they could be effectively blinded to this.

The full paper makes it clear that “Treatment assignment… was known to the acupuncturist” so this study wasn’t double-blinded.

The report also notes that its conclusions contrast with an earlier Cochrane review on Acupuncture for shoulder pain, which found that:

There is little evidence to support or refute the use of acupuncture for shoulder pain

The Cochrane review was carried out in 2005, though, prior to some of the studies examined in the ACC review such as Molsberger et al 2010.

It's surprisingly hard to find a stock photo of acupuncture involving gloves
It’s surprisingly hard to find a stock photo of acupuncture involving gloves

While the overall evidence for neck pain was described as “good”, when compared with sham acupuncture (which is the most appropriate control if you want to account for the elaborate placebo effect of acupuncture) the evidence was not so strong. It’s not clear what the sham protocol was, or if it allowed for the blinding of both participants and practitioners.

It seems Judith Collins’ description of the review’s conclusions was taken practically verbatim from its “Summary Message”, although she also seems to have opted to remove the sentence regarding the evidence for injuries other than those involving chronic neck and shoulder pain, which I’ve highlighted below:

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. The state of the evidence of the effectiveness of acupuncture is not dissimilar to other physical therapies such as physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy.

For a more direct comparison, here’s her wording again:

In 2011, ACC’s research team also 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. Evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture is not dissimilar to other physical therapies such as physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy.


Despite the findings of this report, ACC still seems to be spending a lot of money on treatments that their own review concludes are not supported by evidence. It’s hard to quantify exactly how much of their expenditure on acupuncture – over $24,000,000 over the 2013/14 financial year – went toward these treatments, but Daniel Ryan (also from the Society for Science Based Healthcare) has submitted another OIA request asking for a further breakdown of spending by body part.

In their response to Kevin McCready’s request, however, they have said that:

ACC funds acupuncture for conditions where prescribed by the client’s medical professional. This includes conditions other than musculoskeletal pain, and for non-chronic pain.

I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, but from this it sounds like their review of the evidence may play no part in the decision of whether or not to fund acupuncture treatment for any particular condition.

Instead, it appears ACC will fund any acupuncture treatment so long as the patient was:

referred for acupuncture by a health professional who is covered by the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance (HPCA) Act.

Perhaps this explains ACC’s worrying funding of such treatments as acupuncture for deafness, but I certainly don’t think it excuses it.


Although the report makes an “Important Note” at the top that “The content [of this document] does not necessarily represent the official view of ACC or represent ACC policy”, I did find one particular section in the background section quite interesting. First off, TCM acupuncture is described as:

Drawing of the human body showing acupuncture meridians

TCM acupuncture involves inserting needles into traditional meridian points with the intention on [sic] influencing energy flow within that meridian

As far as I’m aware, that’s a fairly accurate description of how modern acupuncturists tend to claim their treatments work. For example, the New Zealand Register of Acupuncturists’ explanation of How Acupuncture Works claims that:

Any disruption or blockage of the flow of Qi along the meridians will in time affect the associated organ, resulting, for example, in decreased function or pain. Acupuncture aims to correct this flow of Qi, and thereby restore the balance within the body

This explanation also seems to be reflected in ACC’s Acupuncture Treatment Profiles document. However, the reviewer then went on to say that:

many physicians currently practicing acupuncture reject such pre-scientific notions described above

I think that description of acupuncturists’ claims to be able to manipulate qi flow with their needles as “pre-scientific notions” is absolutely spot on. The existence of qi and meridians is not supported by any evidence, and when this practice was developed it was based more on philosophy than evidence. In that way, it’s similar to extinct medical philosophies such as the “Western” medical philosophy of humorism.

One aspect of acupuncture that I find illustrates quite well the fact that its development was not supported by evidence is that horses are said to have a gall bladder meridian. This gall bladder meridian has even been the subject of published papers in journals such as the “Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies”. What’s so odd about that, though? Horses don’t have a gall bladder.

Statements such as many of those found in ACC’s Acupuncture Treatment Profiles, which was “developed by the New Zealand Register of Acupuncturists Inc. in consultation with the New Zealand Acupuncture Standards Authority in a joint initiative with ACC”, are pretty self-evidently pseudoscientific. For example:

“Qi is the vital force of life which… Is the material substrate of the Universe”

If I want to know about the “vital force of life” or the “material substrate of the Universe”, I’ll ask a biologist and a physicist, respectively. So I asked a biologist and a physicist what they thought of these claims regarding “Qi”. Here’s what they had to say:

From my perspective as a biologist, that quote about Qi bears a lot more relation to the old and discredited concept of ‘vitalism’ than it does to modern biology. There is no evidence Qi exists, let alone that the lines along which Qi is supposed to flow through the body exist (and indeed, different ‘schools’ of acupuncture seem to deal in different ‘meridians’ – they can’t all be right!)

Alison Campbell, Senior biological sciences lecturer at the University of Waikato

I think it is self-evident that modern physics does not hold that qi is the “material substrate of the universe”; I would just say that qi is not something you find in physics textbooks; going beyond that might be beating a dead horse.

Richard Easther, Professor and Head of Department of Physics at the University of Auckland

(Alison and Richard often have interesting things to say. If you’d like to follow them, Alison blogs at Bioblog, and Richard at Excursionset.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @REasther.)


Now you have some insight into what I consider to be the problems with ACC’s funding of acupuncture. I’ve had people suggest to me, though, that some people do seem to benefit from acupuncture, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so interested in removing it from ACC.

Before I respond to that, I want to make one thing clear. I am not and will not argue for preventing people who want acupuncture from having acupuncture. Patient autonomy is an immensely important aspect of healthcare, and people have the right to make their own healthcare choices.

My primary motivation, as with all my involvement in dealing with dodgy healthcare claims, is echoed in the mission statement of the Society for Science Based Healthcare:

We believe that a strong basis in rigorous science is a necessary prerequisite for providing safe and effective healthcare. Decisions regarding public funding of healthcare in New Zealand should therefore be science based. We support public health measures that have a clear basis in science and evidence, and oppose those that do not.

We will work to counter misinformation about health issues propagated by individuals and organisations in New Zealand.

Consumers have the right to make an informed decision about their healthcare, and should not have to worry about being misled by unsubstantiated claims.

People have the right to make their healthcare choices, but they should not be misinformed by claims like “this needle will unblock qi flow through your meridians”.

Also, and this is more relevant to the case at hand, a treatment that is not supported by rigorous evidence is at best an experimental treatment. Generally the only ethically appropriate situation for an experimental treatment to be used is in a well-designed clinical trial, although in certain cases an argument can also be made for compassionate use exceptions.

However, this is not what is being funded. ACC is funding acupuncture for indications for which there is either insufficient evidence, no evidence, or negative evidence, and it is funding it in a clinical setting.

Furthermore, the ACC registered acupuncturists that benefit from this framework are generally proponents of the “pre-scientific notions” of qi flow and meridians. Whether they intend to or not, I think ACC is effectively promoting this via their association with these practitioners, and through official documents such as the Acupuncture Treatment Profiles. I also think this promotion is likely to do harm to the public understanding of science, particularly medical science.

ACC funding implies governmental approval, and many more obviously ineffective services such as “energy therapies” make similar justifications to acupuncturists. If consumers are led to believe that practitioners who base their practice on “pre-scientific notions” like qi flow are reliable and trustworthy, it seems reasonable to me to expect that they will think the same of practitioners who base their practice on other concepts such as aura healing.

So, what do I think should be done? 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 legislation 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.

But I won’t hold my breath.

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3 thoughts on “ACC and Acupuncture

  1. Your introduction mentions:

    “Acupuncture… Relieves pain by treating stagnation of Qi and Blood in the affected areas and channels”
    “Qi is the vital force of life which… Is the material substrate of the Universe”
    “Brain… Is considered to be the same in substance as marrow”
    “the Kidney produces marrow”

    This is the TCM side of acupuncture. Western Acupuncture is used by many clinicians and is used based on best evidence based practice. So you lost me there… why should I read on and help further your cause when you’re using misinformation about the modality yourself?

    1. That is what ACC’s ‘Acupuncture Treatment Profiles’ say. It is misinformation, but from ACC, not from Mark. I suggest rereading what he said.

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