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.

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Pharmacists Don’t Want to Sell Unproven Products

Pharmacists Don’t Want to Sell Unproven Products

The Pharmaceutical Society doesn’t think pharmacists should be able to sell healthcare products with no evidence of efficacy.

Last week I wrote about the Pharmacy Council’s proposal to change their Code of Ethics, and summarised the submissions that I was aware of. One important organisation that was missing from that roundup is the Pharmaceutical Society.

The Pharmaceutical Society is a professional association representing New Zealand pharmacists. Given their important position in the pharmacy industry, I think their submission might arguably be the most important. Earlier this week I spoke with Bob Buckham, Chief Pharmacist Advisor at the Pharmaceutical Society, about their submission on the Pharmacy Council’s proposal.

The Pharmaceutical Society does not support the proposed change. Coming from the perspective of pharmacists, their submission also raised two important points around this issue:

  • Pharmacists need clarity: what behaviour is consistent with the Code of Ethics, and what is not?
  • The Code of Ethics is important and cannot be ignored. The Pharmacy Council must be willing to provide guidance and to enforce the code.

The reason why the Pharmaceutical Society does not support this change is similar to the reasons given by other organisations, in that it would implement a double standard:

The Society does not support the proposed supplementary wording in obligation 6.9 as the split wording in the two parts separates the therapy terms “medicine or herbal remedy” in 6.9a from “complementary therapy or other healthcare product” in 6.9b. The result is that the subsequent obligation attached to those therapies does not apply to the other.

To clarify further, “credible evidence of efficacy” is only required when supplying or promoting a “medicine or herbal remedy” (Obligation 6.9a) and “no reason to doubt… quality or safety and when sufficient information about the product can be provided” only applies to “any complementary therapy or other healthcare product.

The Society considers that the obligations of “credible evidence of efficacy” and no reason “to doubt… quality or safety” should apply to the supply or promotion of all therapies and products – ie. any medicine, herbal remedy AND any complementary therapy or other healthcare product.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand)

Like other submissions, the Pharmaceutical Society does support the addition of a new clause about providing sufficient information for patients to make informed choices. However, they also made a similar suggestion to one in the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s submission in that the wording of this clause should be strengthened:

The Society also considers that “sufficient information about the product” must be provided in order for purchasers to make an informed choice with respect to efficacy of that product and the risks and benefits of that against other treatment options.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand)

Aside from their comments on the new proposed wording, the Pharmaceutical Society raised concerns about the application of this section of the Code of Ethics. Part of their submission focussed on pharmacists’ responsibility to comply with the Code of Ethics:

Pharmacists must comply with the Code of Ethics
The Council have stated that it is not the purpose of the Code, or the Council, to endorse or prohibit the supply of any particularly complementary and/or alternative medicine, product, or practice. However, as the responsible authority for pharmacy under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003, standards of ethical conduct set by the Council must be observed by pharmacists. Indeed, in the Code of Ethics the Council requires that pharmacists must comply with “all the implied requirements of ethical practice” within the Code.

The Medicines Regulations 1984 (in Schedule 2 related to applications for a licence to operate a pharmacy) also refers to how pharmacists being employed or engaged in duties in a pharmacy are

not requested or required to act in a way that is inconsistent with the applicable professional or ethical standards of the pharmacy practice

Therefore, the obligations within the Code of Ethics must be interpreted clearly so that pharmacists have a clear understanding of what is considered ethical practice, but also so that the Council can investigate and act upon breaches of the Code.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand)

This call for clarity has been a common theme among submissions. Both the NZ Skeptics’ submission and Dr Ben Albert’s submission called for guidelines on product categories that should not be sold in pharmacies due to a lack of evidence. Also, when the Society for Science Based Healthcare complained to the Pharmacy Council last year, one of the recommendations made was to for the Pharmacy Council provide guidance on this issue:

As a result of this complaint, we want pharmacists to have the opportunity to do the right thing and fulfill their ethical obligations. In order to achieve this, we suggest that the Pharmacy Council consider the following courses of action:

  1. To assist pharmacies in evaluating whether or not a healthcare product is supported by credible evidence of efficacy, the Pharmacy Council should develop and publish guidelines regarding what constitutes credible evidence of efficacy. This need not be a strict requirement so much as a useful guide that pharmacists can use to establish a consistent minimum standard of evidence.

NaturoPharm Wartoff Complaint (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

If it’s unclear where the line is drawn with regard to “credible evidence of efficacy”, it makes it more difficult for pharmacists to practice ethically. The Pharmaceutical Society’s submission raises questions about where this line might be drawn regarding alternative healthcare products, and talks about how the Code will be applied in practice:

Definition and interpretation of obligations
The wording of the proposed obligations 6.9a and 6.9b make reference to “credible evidence of efficacy” and “quality and safety”. Therefore, if presented with a complaint against a pharmacist claimed to be in breach of the obligations within the Code of Ethics, the Council is expected to determine what is “credible evidence of efficacy” and/or “quality or safety”.

The Society recognises that the application of a principles-based Code of Ethics to individual scenarios or circumstances is open to interpretation and challenge. Such scenarios are often not “black and white”, but “shades of grey” where a group of peers may have differing opinions to the acceptability or otherwise of a particular practice. It is expected that such “shades of grey” will always exist in pharmacy practice, as indeed it does in medicine and other areas of professional practice. However where a particular practice is determined to be unethical or unacceptably, this must be made clear. This is a difficulty faced when considering the evidence and use of complementary treatments against regulated medicines.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand)

The submission goes on to compare “natural” or herbal healthcare products with homeopathic products, in terms of plausibility:

Complementary/alternative medicine: natural/herbal remedies
The Society recognises the history of pharmaceuticals, and indeed of the pharmacy profession, where the first “medicines” were derived from natural products. Many of these have been purified, refined and further manipulated in the development of modern day pharmaceutics. Much of modern pharmaceutical research continues to analyse the therapeutic potential of compounds found naturally occurring substances derived from flora and fauna. We recognise how the levels of evidence of the therapeutic benefits (or otherwise) of natural products can vary markedly, but understand the science behind their potential mechanisms of action has the same pharmacological basis and pharmaceuticals.

Homeopathy
We note the Council’s own ‘Complementary and alternative medicines – best practice guidance for pharmacists’ document makes reference to the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill which states:

currently there is no accepted scientific evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy and therefore that health benefit claims should not be made for homeopathic products

This aligns with further documents and statements issued internationally, including the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)(1), the Cochrane Library and others have noted homeopathic products show no effects beyond placebo. A large number of government committees, professional pharmacy and medical organisations internationally have issued statements reinforcing this lack of effectiveness of homeopathy in treating health conditions. The Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand does not at this time have a position statement on complementary medicines or homeopathy.

Homeopathy is not herbalism, and homeopathic science is not consistent with currently accepted medical and pharmacological science. Some pharmacists, and indeed other health professions, have argued for the role of homeopathy as a valid form of treatment to meed patient demand, while acknowledging any “benefit” is achieved through a placebo effect, while not necessarily agreeing with the purported science behind homeopathic practice.

The question for the Council must then be whether it is considered ethical practice for pharmacists to charge a fee for products for which there is no accepted scientific evidence for effectiveness; OR for which they acknowledge a lack of evidence yet sell for the purposes of providing a placebo effect.

(1) National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC). NHMRC Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions [Internet]. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2015. Available from: https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/cam02

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand)

The Pharmaceutical Society also noted something that was raised in a few other submissions; when pharmacies sell ineffective products they lend them the credibility of their profession, which can inadvertently lead to patients being misled about their efficacy.

While we again note that the Council have expressed that it’s not their purpose or the purpose of the Code of Ethics to “endorse any particular complementary or alternative medicine or practice”, in setting the requirements for pharmacists to conform with obligation 6.9 (or 6.9a and 6.9b), the Council must determine whether the practice of homeopathy is consistent with the Code. Particularly when having homeopathic products available alongside pharmaceutical medicines, or indeed herbal/complementary medicines with their varied levels of evidence, potentially implies clinical benefit by association and provision through a respected and regulated health professional.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand)

I’ve not yet been made aware of any other submissions that have been made to the Pharmacy Council, but I imagine a number of individuals at least will have made submissions that have not been publicised. As it stands though, the Pharmacy Council’s proposal seems to have strong opposition from all sides, with the only significant support I have seen so far coming from the Pharmacy Guild, who represent only those pharmacists who own their own pharmacies.

It seems no group other than pharmacy owners wants to keep the status quo of pharmacies selling ineffective products without consequences.

Pharmacy Council’s Code of Ethics Proposal: Submissions Roundup

Pharmacy Council’s Code of Ethics Proposal: Submissions Roundup

The Pharmacy Council has proposed a change to their code of ethics, here’s everything you need to know.

EDIT 22/10/2015: When this article was published it didn’t include details of the Pharmaceutical Society’s submission. Since then, I have spoken with their Chief Pharmacist Advisor, Bob Buckham, about their submission. For more details, see my article summarising it: Pharmacists Don’t Want to Sell Unproven Products

The Pharmacy Council is the statutory body responsible for setting standards of conduct and competence of pharmacists in New Zealand. They have a code of ethics, the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011, which currently includes a section that requires pharmacists must:

6.9
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.

Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 (Pharmacy Council)

In August, the Pharmacy Council proposed to change this section of the code of ethics. The first part of the proposed change is to remove the requirement for complementary therapies and other healthcare products to be supported by credible evidence of efficacy before they can be promoted or supplied in a pharmacy. The other part is to add a requirement that purchasers must be given enough information about these products to make an informed choice:

6.9a
Only supply or promote any medicine or herbal remedy where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9b
Only supply any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when sufficient information about the product can be provided in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.

Proposed supplementary wording to clause 6.9 of the Code of Ethics 2011 (Pharmacy Council)

As part of this proposal, the Pharmacy Council called for submissions from stakeholders. In my last article on this topic, I discussed the submission from the Society for Science Based Healthcare, of which I am a co-founder. Although the extended deadline for submissions passed last Friday, various other groups have made their views on this proposal clear and made their own submissions.


The Society for Science Based Healthcare

The Society for Science Based Healthcare is a group of consumer advocates, scientists, and medical professionals. I am one of its co-founders. The submission from the Society for Science Based Healthcare proposed a modified version of the new wording:

6.9a
Only supply any medicine or herbal remedy where there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9b
Only promote any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9c
Only supply or promote any medicine, herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety, when there is not credible evidence to suggest that the product lacks efficacy.
6.9d
Provide sufficient information about any medicine, herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product product in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.

Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

After lodging a complaint last year with the Pharmacy Council regarding an incident in which a patient was misled by an Auckland pharmacy that recommended and sold them a homeopathic product, both the Pharmacy Council and the Health and Disability Commissioner refused to enforce the code by telling the pharmacy not to promote or sell the homeopathic product, despite the fact that it was not supported by any credible evidence of efficacy.

In principle, the society would oppose the change. However, having have found that the existing section of the code is disregarded rather than enforced, the society decided it was best to try to turn the code into something the Pharmacy Council might be willing to enforce that could still offer protection to patients.

It is currently widespread practice for New Zealand pharmacies to supply and promote healthcare products which are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, such as homeopathic products.

Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

This view that the current code of ethics is commonly disregarded has been shared among many of the other submissions that have been made public, and appears to be supported by a statement made by the Pharmacy Council chairman Dr Andrew Bary in a recent article on Stuff.co.nz:

But Pharmacy Council chairman Dr Andrew Bary said the rules as they stood were “unworkable” and many pharmacists, including himself, were already selling complementary medicines, even if they didn’t believe their claims.

Doctors and pharmacists clash over complimentary medicines (Stuff.co.nz)

The Society for Science Based Healthcare’s submission also argued that there are both potential risks and potential benefits to these products being sold in pharmacies. The proposed new wording is intended to provide the best risk/benefit profile for patients.

On the one hand, if these products are available in a pharmacy consumers will be more likely to visit a pharmacy to purchase them. This can put them in a position where a pharmacist is able to provide them with evidence-based advice, so they can make an informed decision on purchasing the best product for whatever problem they are experiencing. If the product were not available in a pharmacy, they may instead seek it from a source which would not provide them with this information, or which may misinform them.

On the other hand, when a product is available in pharmacies it is likely to lead consumers to believe that it is an effective, evidence-based product. This is often used as a selling point by products which are not supported by evidence. For example, the homeopathic product No-Jet-Lag advertises itself as being available at “Most chemists nationwide“. In this way, pharmacists stocking products without credible evidence of efficacy can also contribute to an increase in consumer demand for them. For all intents and purposes, supplying a product in a pharmacy is also a form of promotion.

Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

When it was submitted this submission had a list of 36 supporters, 24 of whom are healthcare professionals or PhD scientists


The NZ Skeptics

The NZ Skeptics’ submission opposed the change. It also proposed that the Pharmacy Council maintain a list of products or product categories that are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, to make it easier for pharmacists to determine which products could or could not be sold in pharmacies. The motivation for this recommendation is similar to one made in the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s complaint last year:

As a result of this complaint, we want pharmacists to have the opportunity to do the right thing and fulfill their ethical obligations. In order to achieve this, we suggest that the Pharmacy Council consider the following courses of action:

  1. To assist pharmacies in evaluating whether or not a healthcare product is supported by credible evidence of efficacy, the Pharmacy Council should develop and publish guidelines regarding what constitutes credible evidence of efficacy. This need not be a strict requirement so much as a useful guide that pharmacists can use to establish a consistent minimum standard of evidence.

NaturoPharm Wartoff Complaint (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

To inform their submission, the NZ Skeptics conducted a “secret shopper” exercise with their members to discover what actually happens when consumers talked to pharmacy staff about homeopathy.

We found that around half of the pharmacies visited had staff that were willing to promote or supply homeopathic products without adequately explaining the current lack of evidence.

It seems that some pharmacies did not stock homeopathy, but a significant number of others did have homeopathic products on their shelves and in most of these pharmacies staff were willing to offer homeopathy as a viable treatment, with no information offered about a lack of efficacy.

With the code being an important patient protection mechanism, we’re disappointed to see it so readily disregarded.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council’s 2015 Code of Ethics Consultation (NZ Skeptics)

The NZ Skeptics have made these reports available on their website: Pharmacy Homeopathy Reports. As well as this, they conducted a non-exhaustive search for New Zealand pharmacies promoting homeopathic products online, and made the results of this available too: Pharmacies Promoting Homeopathy.

One argument that is used to support pharmacies selling products with no credible evidence of efficacy is that, if pharmacists were prevented from selling these products, then patients’ freedom of choice would be infringed. This argument has been made, for example, by Pharmacy Council chairman Dr Andrew Bary when he was interviewed on Radio New Zealand about this proposed change:

You know, I think we need to respect the wish of the consumer from time to time, so you know, individuals have their own cultural and traditional beliefs around certain alternative and complementary therapies… So I think that the key thing is that we are setting out that we think pharmacists should be informed about the efficacy of the evidence for each individual product when they are promoting and making recommendations to people. But at the same time, we need to put the person at the centre, the consumer, and respect their wishes and desires.

Pharmacy Council moves to change code of ethics over homeopathy (Radio New Zealand)

The argument has also been put forth by pharmacists that sell these products in their pharmacies:

“Many patients believe homeopathy has been of benefit and they should be given the freedom to choose it if they want, [Lincoln Mall Pharmacy owner pharmacist Caleb Townsend] says.”

Pharmacists support patient choice with homeopathy (Pharmacy Today)

It may be worth noting that Lincoln Mall Pharmacy is one of the ones on the NZ Skeptics’ list of pharmacies promoting homeopathy online, and the Pharmacy Today article notes they have “qualified homeopaths onsite”. An Advertising Standards Authority complaint laid by Society for Science Based Healthcare member Simon Clark was settled in June when the pharmacy opted to remove claims that homeopathic products can “treat a wide range of illnesses and concerns” from an online listing.


Ben Albert et al.

Dr Ben Albert is a paediatric endocrinologist who researched fish oil for his PhD, which made headlines earlier this year after his research was published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. Along with five other doctors, he has written a submission to the Pharmacy Council opposing the change.

Despite coming from a group of individuals rather than a professional society, the submission boasts the impressive support of 180 medical doctors, predominantly senior consultants, representing all medical specialties. It also has the support of the NZ Society of Paediatric Surgeons and the NZ Resident Doctors Association, which represents over 90% of the resident medical officer workforce in New Zealand. Its authors are:

  1. Dr Benjamin B. Albert FRACP, Paediatric Endocrinologist and Clinical Research Fellow. Liggins Institute, University of Auckland.
  2. Professor Wayne S. Cutfield MD FRACP. Professor of Paediatric Endocrinology, and Director of A Better Start National Science Challenge, Liggins Institute, University of Auckland. Past president, Australasian Paediatric Endocrinology Group. Past president, Asia Pacific Paediatric Endocrine Society.
  3. Professor Paul L. Hofman FRACP. Professor of Paediatric Endocrinology, Director of the Maurice and Nessie Paykel Clinical Research Unit, Liggins Institute, University of Auckland. President Asia Pacific Endocrine Society. Past president Australasian Paediatric Endocrinology Group.
  4. Professor Alistair J. Gunn PhD FRACP. Professor of Physiology and Paediatrics, and Head of Department of Physiology, University of Auckland. Paediatric Endocrinologist.
  5. Associate Professor Timothy Kenealy PhD FRANZCGP, Professor of Integrated Care, University of Auckland. General Practitioner.
  6. Dr Olivia J. Albert FANZCA. Anaesthetist, Royal Hospital for Women, Sydney, Australia.

The specific recommendations made in their submission are:

  • Reject the proposed change, or reinsert the requirement for “credible evidence of efficacy” in to clause 6.9b. We suggest this wording.

    • where there is no credible evidence to suggest a specific complementary and/or alternative medicine/product is effective, or the proposed effect of the product is scientifically implausible pharmacists should not promote or recommend its use
  • Current ethical standards should be enforced
  • Treatments and products that do not have “credible evidence of efficacy” such as homeopathic remedies, ear candles and magnet based therapies should be listed by the PCNZ, with the intention that they are not sold in pharmacies.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Ben Albert et al.)

The last recommendation echoes that of the NZ Skeptics, aiming to simplify things for pharmacists by providing a list of products or product categories which clearly are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy.

The rationale for their opposition to the change is laid out clearly and concisely in the submission:

The suggested change is in opposition to the general principles of the code, and the expectations of the public and other members of the multidisciplinary science based healthcare team.

This change would make it permissible within the ethical code for pharmacists to promote and sell products that are unproven and even scientifically implausible. We believe that this is harmful and wrong.

the current code should be enforced, not amended.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Ben Albert et al.)

They raise another counterargument to the “freedom of choice” argument, noting that pharmacists should be wary of their conflict of interest between advising against patients purchasing products that aren’t supported by evidence and selling more products to generate more profit for the pharmacy:

pharmacists (like many health providers) have a conflict of interest when they sell and give advice about health products from which they make profit. There is evidence that financial pressures do impact the clinical decisions of pharmacists1. One of the reasons that a code of ethics is important is because it provides guidance where the interests of pharmacists and patients differ.

1 Chaar B, Brien Ja, Krass I. Professional ethics in pharmacy: the Australian experience. International Journal of Pharmacy Practice. 2005;13(3):195-204

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Ben Albert et al.)

They also raise the issue that products sold in pharmacies are likely to be seen as effective by the public, which can lead to harm when they are sold in pharmacies:

Many patients will assume that the pharmacist endorses the health products sold in the pharmacy as scientifically supported. But many pharmacists sell products that are known to be ineffective, such as homeopathic remedies3 or potentially harmful, such as ear candles4. Selling such products conflicts with the principles of the current code5 as it reduces patient autonomy. The patient that wrongly assumes that a health product is scientifically supported is ill-prepared to make an informed decision.

3 Ernst E. A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2002;54(6):577-82.
4 Seely DR, Quigley SM, Langman AW. Ear Candles-Efficacy and Safety. The Laryngoscope. 1996;106(10):1226-9.
5 Zealand PCoN. Code of ethics 2011: Pharmacy Council of New Zealand; 2011 [cited 1015 17 September]. Available from: http://www.pharmacycouncil.org.nz/cms_show_download.php?id=200.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Ben Albert et al.)

Although this submission has not been made public, it shares much in common with a letter to the editor from the same authors that was published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

I spoke with Dr Albert to ask what motivated him to take action on the Pharmacy Council’s proposal, here’s what he had to say:

For years it has bothered and surprised me that products that are entirely implausible such as magnets and homeopathic remedies, and harmful products such as ear candles are sold in pharmacies. When scientifically trained and trusted health professionals promote and sell such treatments they betray the trust of the public who will quite reasonably assume such products are endorsed by the pharmacist and supported by scientific evidence. The current PCNZ code of ethics indicates that it is unethical and unprofessional for pharmacists to sell these products. The right course of action is to stop selling them. To instead change the code to redefine ethical behaviour appears cynical and makes the sale of unsupported or harmful treatments no less wrong.

Dr Ben Albert


The New Zealand Medical Association

The New Zealand Medical Association is New Zealand’s largest medical organisation, representing over 5,500 medical professionals. The New Zealand Medical Association’s submission strongly opposes the change. They echo the views of other submissions that in the face of widespread behaviour at odds with the current code, the way forward should be change behaviour to match the code rather than to relax the code to permit existing behaviour:

The NZMA is strongly opposed to the above proposed change

We do not believe that pharmacists should be selling ‘treatments’ that are known to be ineffective or lack evidence of effectiveness. We contend that doing so is unethical. While this practice may be happening under the present Code, we believe that the PCNZ should be seeking ways to enforce the Code rather than amend it to accommodate this practice.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)

The NZMA acknowledged the trust placed in pharmacists by the public, and how this affects the way in which products sold in pharmacies are perceived:

It is our view that allowing pharmacists to sell ineffective therapies or products is contrary to the profession’s own aspirations, including of trustworthiness and professionalism. More broadly, it undermines the social contract between the public and the profession. The pharmacist is trusted by patients and other members of the health care team precisely because of their scientific training. The sale of products by pharmacists that knowingly do not work is inconsistent with the high trust health care professional the public expects and the profession requests.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)

The NZMA also deals with the “freedom of choice” argument in a similar way to the other submissions:

We understand that patient autonomy and freedom of choice are being advanced as the rationale for the proposed rewording to the Code. We believe these are spurious arguments on which to remove the requirement for “credible evidence of efficacy” for pharmacists to sell complementary therapies or other healthcare products. Freedom of choice should not transcend the health and well-being of the patient. Furthermore, such products are already available to people to purchase at other outlets, such as health food shops and supermarkets.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)

The NZMA raised some new concerns, regarding the potential impacts of the proposed change:

The proposal is of all the more concern given the current lack of regulation of complementary therapies in New Zealand.

We are also concerned at the impact of the proposal on equity. Patients that are least likely to consult a doctor could end up being even more likely to purchase costly ‘healthcare’ products from their pharmacy that do not work.

The proposal also undermines the wider health sector’s efforts to improve health literacy.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)

The NZMA’s final recommendation is for the requirement for credible evidence of efficacy to be kept and enforced, and until it is enforced for the newly proposed requirement for supplying sufficient information to make an informed choice to bridge the gap:

Ideally, we would like to see pharmacists end the sale of complementary therapies or other healthcare products for which there is no credible evidence of efficacy (ie, meet their obligations under the existing Code). Until such time, we would suggest the addition of a subclause to 6.9 which addresses the need to provide sufficient information for herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product. Accordingly, we proposed the following wording:

6.9
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.
6.9a
When supplying a herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product, sufficient information about the product must be provided in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to efficacy of the product and the risks and benefits of all available treatment options.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)


The Pharmacy Guild

The Pharmacy Guild represents pharmacy owners in New Zealand. The Pharmacy Guild’s submission supports the Pharmacy Council’s proposed change:

We support the Council’s intentions of the proposed changes to clause 6.9 of the Code of Ethics 2011 (the Code).

Consultation on the proposed wording to clause 6.9 of the Code of Ethics 2011 (Pharmacy Guild)

The primary motivation for this support seems to be a combination of the “freedom of choice” argument I described above, and the potential for benefit described in the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s submission:

We believe that if pharmacists were prevented from selling natural products then patients wanting these products would continue to source them from somewhere. We consider that it is far safer for consumers to approach pharmacists for advice and that they purchase supplies of complementary medicines from a pharmacy rather than over the internet for instance, where the quality and safety of a product cannot always be guaranteed.

Consultation on the proposed wording to clause 6.9 of the Code of Ethics 2011 (Pharmacy Guild)


As well as these submissions, I have been made aware of a few more, mainly submitted by individuals. Of those I am aware of, such as Edward Linney’s submission, they are predominantly opposed to the change for many of the reasons described in these submissions. I am aware of one instance of an ex-pharmacist who supports that change who is now a practising homeopath and, scarily, was previously employed by the Pharmacy Council as their Professional Standards Advisor even while they were practising as a homeopath. However I don’t know if they have made a submission.

I’m also aware that the Pharmaceutical Society has made a submission. Whereas the Pharmacy Council regulates pharmacists, the Pharmacy Guild and Pharmaceutical Society are membership organisations; the Guild represents pharmacy owners and the Society represents pharmacists in general. Although I have tried to get in touch with them, I haven’t seen the Pharmaceutical Society’s submission and can’t provide comment. I will update this article if that changes.

However, I am aware that the Pharmaceutical Society has close ties to the New Zealand Medical Association, even to the point where they have a joint agreement for members to abide by both organisations’ codes of ethics. So I expect that if they have made a submission it may be along similar lines to the NZMA’s submission.

If anyone knows of any more information that I’ve missed in this article, please leave a comment below.

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 6: An Opportunity for Change

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 6: An Opportunity for Change

I’ve written a lot about ethical pharmacy practice in New Zealand, advocating for New Zealand pharmacists to choose not to promote or sell healthcare products that aren’t supported by credible evidence of efficacy. I’ve also complained in the past about misleading advertising of ineffective healthcare products in pharmacies. I strongly believe that we should be able to feel confident going into a pharmacy that we will get evidence-based advice on purchasing effective healthcare products, and not be misled.

The Pharmacy Council is responsible under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act for setting standards of ethical conduct for pharmacists in New Zealand. Section 6.9 of their current Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 states that pharmacists must:

6.9
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.

The Pharmacy Council is currently proposing to change this section of their code of ethics to the following wording, prior to the entire code being reviewed in 2016:

6.9a
Only supply or promote any medicine or herbal remedy where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9b
Only supply any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when sufficient information about the product can be provided in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.

I have referred to section 6.9 of that code of ethics many times, as I feel it is a great standard which should offer a significant degree of consumer protection. However, despite there being ample evidence that homeopathic products are ineffective, most New Zealand pharmacies continue to sell them. I have heard many stories of people encountering misinformation about homeopathy in New Zealand pharmacies that sell it. The section of the code of ethics that is meant to protect consumers against this simply has not been enforced.

Even when the Society for Science Based Healthcare lodged a formal complaint directly to the Pharmacy Council about an instance where someone was recommended and sold a homeopathic product in a pharmacy (but didn’t realise it was homeopathic until they got home), both the Pharmacy Council and the Health and Disability Commissioner (who had the complaint forwarded to them from the Pharmacy Council) refused to enforce it. Neither of them were willing to tell pharmacies that they could not sell any specific product.

So although I really do like the old wording, I think this change could be an opportunity to turn the code of ethics into something that really can help consumers. As part of the proposed change, the Pharmacy Council is calling for submissions on it, so I see this as an opportunity to make things better.

At the Society for Science Based Healthcare, we have prepared a proposal to submit before the deadline of 5pm on the 1st of October 2015. I’ve included this proposal below for you to read, and you can also find it on our site: Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal

If you agree with our submission and would like to support it, please leave a comment below or get in touch. You can contact the Society for Science Based Healthcare via email at sbh@sbh.nz. We will be sending this submission to the Pharmacy Council on Wednesday the 30th of September Thursday the 8th of October (the Pharmacy Council extended their deadline).

Of course, you can also send in your own submission on this proposal. Details on how to do this can be found in the Pharmacy Council’s proposal document.


Last year the Society for Science Based Healthcare submitted a formal complaint to the Pharmacy Council regarding an Auckland pharmacy that had misled a consumer by promoting a homeopathic product as effective, then selling it to them. Although the council did write to the pharmacy, to our knowledge it did not consider whether or not the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 section 6.9 had been breached as alleged in the complaint. The council forwarded the complaint to the office of the Health and Disability Commissioner, but both organisations were unwilling or unable to enforce it as this would involve telling a pharmacy which products they can or cannot sell. Neither the Pharmacy Council nor the Health and Disability Commissioner seems willing to enforce a code of ethics when this would involve telling pharmacists which products they can or can’t stock.

The Pharmacy Council’s proposal document notes that the Council “has a duty to protect the public”. A code of ethics which is not enforced may as well not exist. We feel the addition of a new section requiring that sufficient information can be provided to consumers in order for them to make an informed choice regarding whether or not to purchase a complementary therapy is in line with what consumers could reasonably expect. We hope that complaints about potential breaches of this standard would be considered by the Pharmacy Council or another body, so that it can offer some measure of consumer protection.

However, we think the wording could be improved by changing “when sufficient information about the product can be provided” to “when sufficient information about the product is provided”.

It is currently widespread practice for New Zealand pharmacies to supply and promote healthcare products which are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, such as homeopathic products. This is despite several prominent healthcare organisations, including the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), speaking out against these products being prescribed or promoted by healthcare practitioners. Most recently, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) published a statement on the 10th of September that:

PSA does not support the sale of homeopathy products in pharmacy.

When it comes to pharmacies stocking healthcare products that are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, or for which there is credible evidence that they are not effective such as in the case of homeopathic products, it is important to weigh up the potential risks and benefits.

On the one hand, if these products are available in a pharmacy consumers will be more likely to visit a pharmacy to purchase them.. This can put them in a position where a pharmacist is able to provide them with evidence-based advice, so they can make an informed decision on purchasing the best product for whatever problem they are experiencing. If the product were not available in a pharmacy, they may instead seek it from a source which would not provide them with this information, or which may misinform them.

However, there are certain circumstances in which any potential for this benefit can be lost completely:

  1. If consumers are sent away from pharmacies when they ask about these products. We are aware, for example, of numerous instances of people being recommended by pharmacy employees that they should instead go to a dedicated natural health product store for information on homeopathic products.
  2. If pharmacists create an environment in which consumers are likely to be misled, for example by employing a homeopath to give non evidence-based advice to their customers.
  3. If a pharmacy sells these products online, in which case they can be purchased without any opportunity for a pharmacist to provide enough information for consumers to make an informed decision.

On the other hand, when a product is available in pharmacies it is likely to lead consumers to believe that it is an effective, evidence-based product. This is often used as a selling point by products which are not supported by evidence. For example, the homeopathic product No-Jet-Lag advertises itself as being available at “Most chemists nationwide“. In this way, pharmacists stocking products without credible evidence of efficacy can also contribute to an increase in consumer demand for them. Supplying a product in a pharmacy is effectively also a form of promotion.

Although some benefit can be gained from pharmacists stocking products that are not backed by credible evidence of efficacy, in order for consumers to make an informed choice about purchasing these products it is important that they be made aware of this lack of evidence. It should be an ethical requirement that pharmacists will not promote any healthcare product where there is not credible evidence of efficacy.

The Pharmacy Council’s consultation document for this proposed change says that:

In instances where there is credible evidence to suggest a specific complementary and/or alternative medicine/product lacks efficacy, pharmacists should not promote or recommend its use

We agree with this, but feel it has not been clearly conveyed in the proposed new wording for section 6.9. We feel it would be useful for this to be included more clearly.

We also feel that the important distinction between healthcare products is not whether they are considered a complementary therapy, herbal remedy, or medicine, but whether or not they are supported by credible evidence of efficacy. However, we recognise that medicines and herbal remedies typically have greater risk than other healthcare products, so it may be more suitable to have more stringent requirements for when pharmacists may supply them.

With this in mind, we propose the following wording:

6.9a
Only supply any medicine or herbal remedy where there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9b
Only promote any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9c
Only supply or promote any medicine, herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is not credible evidence to suggest that the product lacks efficacy.
6.9d
Provide sufficient information about any medicine, herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product product in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.

Finally, we feel that certain words could benefit from guidance on their definitions. In our 2014 complaint we raised with the Pharmacy Council that the meaning of “credible evidence” was not clear but were informed it was not their role to clarify this. However we feel it would be useful for an organisation such as the Pharmaceutical Society to publish guidance notes on this after the code has been updated.

We also feel that the meaning of “promote” should be clarified in the same way so it is clear where exactly the line is drawn. For example, we feel it is currently unclear which of the following activities might be considered promotion for the purpose of this code:

  • Advertising the availability of a healthcare product at a pharmacy
  • Featuring a product on a pharmacy’s website
  • Including an advertisement for the product on a pharmacy’s website on a page from which it can be purchased

If you agree with our submission and would like to support it, please leave a comment below or get in touch. You can contact the Society for Science Based Healthcare via email at sbh@sbh.nz. We will be sending this submission to the Pharmacy Council on Wednesday the 30th of September Thursday the 8th of October (the Pharmacy Council extended their deadline).

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 5: Looking for Leadership

Pharmacy
Pharmacy by russellstreet on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

In New Zealand, the Pharmacy Council is legally responsible under section 118(i) of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 for setting standards of ethical conduct for New Zealand pharmacists. As part of this, they’ve written a Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics, which requires that:

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.

Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics Section 6.9

Last November, a case was brought to our attention at the Society for Science Based Healthcare of a salesperson in an Auckland pharmacy recommending and selling a homeopathic product to someone who didn’t realise until they’d bought the product and taken it home that it was homeopathic and that there is no credible evidence of its efficacy. The society wrote a formal letter of complaint to the Pharmacy Council about this, alleging that it was a clear violation of this section of their code of ethics.

As part of this complaint, we made a series of recommendations:

As a result of this complaint, we want pharmacists to have the opportunity to do the right thing and fulfill their ethical obligations. In order to achieve this, we suggest that the Pharmacy Council consider the following courses of action:

  1. Advise [the pharmacy] of their ethical obligation not to purchase, supply, or promote any healthcare product where there is not credible evidence of efficacy.
  2. Recommend that [the pharmacy] review their stock, starting with [the homeopathic products we found in their store], to ensure that they meet this ethical obligation. If they are not currently aware of credible evidence of efficacy for these products, they should request it from the manufacturer and, if they are not supplied with credible evidence of efficacy within a certain specified timeframe (we recommend 10 working days) to remove the products from sale.
  3. Recommend that [the pharmacy] undertake training of their staff to ensure that no one is giving unfounded healthcare advice to customers.
  4. Relay these recommendations to other New Zealand pharmacies so that they are also given the chance to ensure that they meet this ethical obligation.
  5. To assist pharmacies in evaluating whether or not a healthcare product is supported by credible evidence of efficacy, the Pharmacy Council should develop and publish guidelines regarding what constitutes credible evidence of efficacy. This need not be a strict requirement so much as a useful guide that pharmacists can use to establish a consistent minimum standard of evidence.

The Society for Science Based Healthcare

The Pharmacy Council said that creating a guideline for standards of evidence was not their role, although they suggested that it may be appropriate for the Pharmacy Guild or the Pharmaceutical Society to create such a guideline and forwarded the letter of complaint on to these organisations. To my knowledge, neither of them has created any such guideline.

The Pharmacy Council also wrote to the pharmacy in question. When I visited it some months later I found the same homeopathic products were still for sale, although they had at least been moved behind the counter.

I don’t know if that particular pharmacy still actively promotes and tries to sell these products, but on Twitter the other night I was told of another case where a sales assistant at a New Zealand pharmacy tried to sell a homeopathic product while clearly lacking any useful knowledge about homeopathy:

In response to the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s complaint, the Pharmacy Council also offered to remind pharmacists of their obligations with respect to selling any alternative medicines in their next newsletter. Last week, 9 months after having received our complaint, they finally published this newsletter. Here’s what they said:

Complementary and Alternative Medicines — Best Practice Guidance for Pharmacists

As medicines experts, pharmacists have built their reputation on providing accurate, unbiased information on the use, safety and effectiveness of all medicines, including complementary and alternative medicines. Pharmacists must be familiar with the latest information on the medications they supply to their patients, and seek independent information to maintain an objective viewpoint so they can help individuals make informed choices (Competence Standard O1.2.4).

Homeopathy in particular has had much attention over recent times, specifically regarding its plausibility and efficacy. Nonetheless, many people, including some healthcare professionals, continue to use or practise homeopathic medicine and advocate its safety and efficacy.

It is not Council’s purpose to endorse any particular complementary or alternative medicine or practice; however, Council believes it is necessary for pharmacists to have a basic knowledge of complementary and alternative medicines to engage with and advise patients appropriately.

This approach also ensures pharmacists can meet their duty of care to patients and the profession. Pharmacists should be able to counsel patients about complementary and alternative medicines’ general use, the current evidence and any safety issues, including their use with other medications.

Pharmacy Council July 2015 Newsletter

Although I’m glad to finally see a statement from the Pharmacy Council about homeopathy, I am disappointed at the weakness of this statement. Especially in contrast with their clear and strong code of ethics that requires pharmacists only sell healthcare products with credible evidence of efficacy – something that is clearly not the case for homeopathy.

However, I’m aware that the Pharmacy Council’s role is restricted to the responsibilities set out in the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act. So perhaps it would be better to expect professional organisations representing pharmacists to speak out against this. We have recently seen this to be the case with organisations of other healthcare professionals, such as the New Zealand Medical Association whose chair recently agreed on national radio that homeopathy is “just rubbish”.

In New Zealand there are two professional organisations (that I’m aware of) that represent pharmacists: the Pharmacy Guild and the Pharmaceutical Society. They are not so limited in position by the law as the Pharmacy Council, so I would hope to see stronger positions supporting science based healthcare from them.

Over the weekend, the annual Pharmacy Awards were held, hosted by both the trade magazine Pharmacy Today and by the Pharmacy Guild. Surely, at an event like this we should expect to see a celebration of outstanding examples of pharmacies providing quality healthcare services, right? For the most part, I hope, that may have been the case, but I was rather disheartened to see one award that flies in the face of this goal.

The official description for the Best Complementary Healthcare Campaign award is (with my emphasis added):

To win this award you need to have come up with a complementary health promotion or ongoing programme that has contributed to improved retail result, in areas such as, vitamins, supplements, sports nutrition or homeopathy.

Pharmacy Awards | Best Complementary Healthcare Campaign

I was shocked and dismayed to see this. Pharmacists should win awards for providing an excellent healthcare service. Not for selling more fake medicine.

Of the previous winners listed, one is Auckland pharmacist Martin Harris. I’ve written about him briefly before in another article about homeopathy being sold in New Zealand pharmacies, quoting him from a Pharmacy Today article in which he defended the practice:

Auckland pharmacist Martin Harris says there is good evidence for homeopathy in the field of quantum physics.

“There’s no placebo-controlled, double-blind randomised controlled trials using one remedy and one result because homeopathy doesn’t work that way, it works on energy,” Mr Harris says.

Conventional medicines have been proven to have side effects and contraindications, but pharmacies still sell them, he says.

Mr Harris, who specialises in nutrition medicine, admits he is no expert when it comes to homeopathy, and his Massey pharmacy sells only a few homoepathy products.

But he would be very disappointed if he was not allowed to sell the products as an option, he says.

Pharmacists support patient choice with homeopathy – Pharmacy Today

Mr Harris last won the “Best Complementary Healthcare Campaign” award in 2012, but perhaps you could hope the pharmacist community has since stopped celebrating such massively misguided interpretations of the evidence (and ethics) surrounding homeopathy. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case, as Mr Harris took home the Supreme Award at this year’s Pharmacy Awards despite selling homeopathic products in his pharmacy and appearing to be proud of it.


The pharmacist community makes no secret of the fact that it wants to play a larger role in New Zealand’s healthcare system, calling for changes such as allowing pharmacists to dispense contraceptive pills without a prescription and and provide a substitute for a GP’s services in some circumstances. From my position as an external onlooker, it does seem like there is a certain degree of pharmacists wanting to extend their practice and doctors trying to defend their turf, although I also think both sides have good arguments to make. So long as any changes primarily act to serve the healthcare needs of the public, I’m happy.

However, running a successful pharmacy is a balancing act between running a profitable retail store and providing a reliable healthcare service. Pharmacies can do a great job at improving access to essential healthcare services such as vaccinations and smoking cessation, but on the other hand many of them also boost their profits by selling healthcare products that do nothing aside from emptying your wallet. A recent opinion piece in Pharmacy Today that acknowledged this balance recommended upselling Vitamin C when customers asked about cold/flu products. While this would surely increase the pharmacy’s profits, the best available evidence doesn’t show that Vitamin C supplementation can help with the common cold or influenza.

There is a clear need for leadership within the pharmacist community regarding putting customers’ healthcare needs before profits. We trust pharmacies to provide us with reliable healthcare products and advice, but so long as they keep fake medicine on their shelves I’m not convinced they deserve this trust. To quote the hover text of this relevant xkcd strip:

I just noticed CVS has started stocking homeopathic pills on the same shelves with–and labeled similarly to–their actual medicine. Telling someone who trusts you that you’re giving them medicine, when you know you’re not, because you want their money, isn’t just lying–it’s like an example you’d make up if you had to illustrate for a child why lying is wrong.

Randall Munroe – xkcd: Alternative Literature

I believe pharmacists generally do care about providing the best health outcomes for their customers. What I want to see is more pharmacists putting patients before profits, following in the footsteps of Australian pharmacist Grant McGill by choosing to remove homeopathic products from their shelves.

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 4: Paving the Way

This year has not been a good year for homeopathy. There have been many blows to the industry in the form of more research finding it ineffective, position statements from organisations of health practitioners discouraging its use, and successful complaints to regulatory authorities. And this trend shows no signs of abating.

In March, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published their Statement on Homeopathy, following a rigorous review of the evidence encompassing over 50 systematic reviews. The conclusion was clear:

there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

Statement on HomeopathyNational Health and Medical Research Council (Australia)

Most organisations of medical professionals have codes of ethics that make it clear prescribing or selling treatments which are not supported by evidence is unethical. Putting two and two together, these ethical standards and the clear findings of the NHMRC have prompted the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) to publish a position statement on homeopathy:

The RACGP supports the use of evidence-based medicine, in which current research information is used as the basis for clinical decision-making.

In light of strong evidence to confirm that homeopathy has no effect beyond that of placebo as a treatment for various clinical conditions, the position of the RACGP is:

  1. Medical practitioners should not practice homeopathy, refer patients to homeopathic practitioners, or recommend homeopathic products to their patients.
  2. Pharmacists should not sell, recommend, or support the use of homeopathic products.
  3. Homeopathic alternatives should not be used in place of conventional immunisation.
  4. Private health insurers should not supply rebates for or otherwise support homeopathic services or products

Position statement: homeopathyRoyal Australian College of General Practitioners

Following this, in an interview with Radio New Zealand the chair of the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), Dr Stephen Child, made the NZMA’s position clear:

Susie Ferguson: So Australian doctors being told not to be prescribing this, and they should come off the shelves as well so people couldn’t even buy them over the counter. Would you support that happening here?

Dr Stephen Child: Well yes, it’s an ineffective treatment. It’s basically giving a glass of water or a sugar pill to patients, and I think you would consider that unethical if I gave you a sugar pill and charged you eighty dollars for that.

Doctors Told to Stop Prescribing Homeopathic ProductsRadio NZ

Homeopathy has never been supported by evidence, but the recent findings from the NHMRC have strengthened the scientific consensus and allowed many organisations to take a stronger stance against it.

When there is also a clear ethical mandate not to promote or provide healthcare that is not supported by evidence, all it takes to put two and two together is a little courage.

Now, Kingsley Village Pharmacy in Australia is paving the way, stating that their “Homeopathic products [are] going in the bin”:

The owner of Kingsley Village Pharmacy, pharmacist Grant McGill, has explained why he made this decision:

I’ve never promoted or recommended these products but I’ve accepted them passively and I felt a bit hypocritical having them on the shelves.

I operate a bit differently to corporate chains and believe a pharmacy should be professional rather than a place selling a lot of cosmetics.

If someone comes in with sleep problems, I will look at what is known to help and address things like sleep hygiene issues, rather than recommending flower essences.

Pharmacist bins ‘crap’ homeopathic productsThe West Australian

When the Twitter account for the pharmacy was asked if they thought their customers would notice or care about the change, they said:

A tweet from Grant McGill echoed the same sentiment as the reason for this change:

Through the Society for Science Based Healthcare, I have called previously for New Zealand pharmacists to stop selling homeopathic products.

When I had an complaint upheld against an Auckland Pharmacy for a misleading display stand for the homeopathic product No-Jet-Lag, that pharmacy promised to remove the product from sale and I hoped that New Zealand pharmacists would follow their example.

But it isn’t feasible for me to complain about each and every homeopathic product sold in a New Zealand pharmacy (although that hasn’t stopped me complaining about some). New Zealand pharmacists need to follow Kingsley Village Pharmacy’s example and remove the products not because complaints have been upheld, but because there’s no evidence they work so it’s clearly the ethical thing to do.


The Pharmacy Council of New Zealand is the body legally responsible under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act for setting standards of ethical conduct to be observed by pharmacists on this side of the Tasman. To this end, they have published a Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics. Section 6.9 of this code is very clear when it comes to pharmacists’ ethical responsibilities surrounding evidence-based healthcare:

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

Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of EthicsPharmacy Council of New Zealand

Despite this, as mentioned in the Radio New Zealand interview with Dr Stephen Child from the NZMA, “In New Zealand, many pharmacies stock a range of homeopathic treatments”. When New Zealand pharmacists have been challenged on this point, their defences have ranged from bizarre misunderstandings of the evidence (e.g. “Auckland pharmacist Martin Harris says there is good evidence for homeopathy in the field of quantum physics”) to arguments that patient choice overrides their ethical responsibility:

But homeopathy is part of a holistic approach to healthcare, according to Auckland pharmacist Caleb Townsend, whose Lincoln Mall Pharmacy has qualified homeopaths onsite.

There is not one system that suits all people, Mr Townsend says in an email.

“Homeopathy is seen at this pharmacy as complementary to conventional medicine, in much the same way as acupuncture, vitamins and herbs are.”

Many patients believe homeopathy has been of benefit and they should be given the freedom to choose it if they want, he says.

“We have not yet become a society where cultural beliefs are legislated out of existence.”

Pharmacists Support Patient Choice with HomeopathyPharmacy Today

Dr Child provided a response to this line of argument in his interview:

Well, again as I say they argue that it’s mainly free trade basically, or a free market, so if people are willing to pay the money, and they think it works, then what are they doing that’s wrong?

And my problem with that argument though is to say that if they are telling the patient that it works then they are misleading in their advertising and even the Consumer Guarantee Act that it’s not allowed to mislead the consumer.

Second of all there’s an imbalance of a relationship when you come in to see a health practitioner and you’re the patient.

And thirdly when you’re suffering and you’re unwell you’re possibly not in a position to make an informed, balanced decision as a consumer. So I’m not even sure the free market argument would suggest that it would be legitimate practice.

Dr Stephen Child, Doctors Told to Stop Prescribing Homeopathic ProductsRadio NZ

The Society for Science Based Healthcare has also been in touch with Green Cross Health, an umbrella organisation that owns brands such as Unichem and Life Pharmacy and represents over 300 New Zealand pharmacies, to ask if they have a commitment to uphold section 6.9 of the Pharmacy Council’s code of ethics. Despite following up multiple times, the closest thing to a direct answer Green Cross Health has given to this question is:

While we support best practice we are also supportive of consumer choice.

Green Cross Health

The remaining defence of this practice is that pharmacists do more than provide healthcare, they also have to run a business. Following his Radio NZ interview, Dr Child alluded to this in an article from Pharmacy Today following his Radio NZ interview:

“Medically, it’s unethical to provide a treatment that’s not proven,” Dr Child says.

However, he has stopped short of telling pharmacies not to sell homeopathic products.

“It’s not really appropriate, I believe, for the medical profession to tell pharmacies how to run their business and how to act.”

Pharmacies have a difficult balance between providing healthcare and running a business, Dr Child says.

“It must be very difficult because they are a business as well.”

Homeopathy discredited again on both sides of the TasmanPharmacy Today

There is a range of behaviours among New Zealand pharmacies when it comes to promotion of homeopathy. Some few pharmacists refuse to sell the products at all, whereas many stock them but might not actively promote or recommend them. On the extreme end of this ethical scale, there are pharmacies like Lincoln Mall Pharmacy in Auckland, which promotes “homeopathic consultations” from homeopaths within the pharmacy, and Simillimum Pharmacy in Wellington, which describes itself as a “homeopathic pharmacy”.

The fact that there are some pharmacists who operate without relying on profits from selling homeopathic products indicates that it is entirely possible. Those pharmacists who passively sell them likely don’t rely on the profits made from those products as the difference between financial success and failure, so I’d hope they wouldn’t use higher profits as a justification for breaching their ethical obligations.

If any pharmacy has got to the level where their business would fail financially were it not for homeopathic products and services that they sell, then their business practices would blatantly violate their ethical responsibilities. I should think the risk of financial failure in a case like this should certainly not be an acceptable excuse for such unethical conduct.

Kingsley Village Pharmacy in Australia has set a great example for all pharmacists, having the courage to take a stand on ethics and stop selling homeopathic products. New Zealand pharmacists who currently have them on their shelves should follow in these footsteps.

To borrow Grant McGill’s words, pharmacists need to stand up for patient outcomes.

Then and Now: The New Zealand Complementary Medicines Industry

Supplements

In 2007, the Ministry of Health undertook a review of the “complementary medicines industry” in New Zealand, and found that a significant majority of companies weren’t complying with consumer protection legislation.

The review was never made public, but when I saw it mentioned in a recent article in North & South magazine I asked the ministry for a copy. It has been released to me under the Official Information Act.

Since it was written in 2007, both the industry and the regulations have undergone changes, so the review’s findings won’t be accurate now. However, I think it’s worthwhile looking at it to get a general understanding of the relationship between this industry and its regulators.


North & South June 2015

The June edition of North & South has published an article that Peter Griffin and I co-wrote about the implications of a recent Press Council ruling. Excluding letters to the editor, this was the first time something I’ve written has appeared in mainstream print media. Filled with vain excitement, I purchased a magazine for the first time.

When I saw the cover of this issue, promoting a story by Donna Chisholm entitled “Truth (and Lies) About Supplements”, I realised that it was a much better reason for me to buy this magazine than just to see my own name in print. I wasn’t disappointed either, the story is a great summary of the issues surrounding supplementation, and it’s written from a New Zealand perspective. I’d recommend that everyone interested in this topic pick up a copy of North & South to read it.

This is something I’m interested in so I already follow the news on this topic. A lot of what was discussed in the article I’d already seen, but there was also some very interesting stuff in there that I’d never heard anything about before. One of those things was a review of New Zealand natural health websites that the Ministry of Health undertook in 2007, apparently finding that nearly 80% of them were not complying with the Medicines Act:

[Natural Products NZ executive director Alison] Quesnel’s confidence in the veracity of claims made in New Zealand may also be misplaced. A Health Ministry review of 263 industry websites in 2007 found nearly 80 per cent making illegal therapeutic claims. A later “compliance awareness programme” discovered that more than half the ads on websites for natural products made therapeutic claims, with a third of the websites making “high-level” claims.

Chisholm, Donna (2015). The Truth (and Lies) About Vitamins. North & South, June, p41

When trying to find this review online, the closest I could find was a Regulatory Impact Statement that the Ministry of Health published in 2010, about “The Development of a Natural Health Products Bill”. This document doesn’t contain the review, it only references some of its results.

After Donna Chisholm told me that she found the information from her article in this document but didn’t have a copy of the review, I contacted the Ministry of Health to ask if it was available anywhere online, and if it wasn’t if they could send me a copy. They interpreted my email as an Official Information Act request, and within a couple of weeks the report appeared in my inbox.

EDIT 2015/05/31 3:44 pm: As Thomas Lumley has pointed out in the comments, they were entirely correct to interpret it in this way. I just hadn’t thought of it as an OIA request at the time.

Usually I use the great website FYI to make OIA requests. It’s a great service which I’ve mentioned before, that allows OIA requests to be made in a way that makes both the request and the response public. It was relaunched this year with sponsorship from the New Zealand Herald. This time, however, I didn’t realise at first that my email would be interpreted in this way, so the request and response aren’t hosted on FYI.

However, I have uploaded the report and made it available here: Overview of the New Zealand Complementary Medicines Industry. I found it quite interesting reading, and a bit disappointing that it was never released publicly until now, when it’s 8 years old. Please keep that in mind when reading it.


The report gathered information on businesses operating in this industry to produce estimates about the industry as a whole. The report includes information like the proportion of companies of various sizes (e.g. < 10 employees). Once again, remember this report is 8 years old at the time I’m writing this, so the state of the industry has certainly changed since then.

The section which I found most interesting by far is, of course, Non-Compliance. Here’s the blurb for that section (the emphasis is mine):

Of the companies where it was possible to obtain specific details about their products, an assessment was made of the level of non-compliance with the current Medicines Act (1981) and the Dietary Supplements Regulations (1985). Non-compliance was defined only on the basis of the presence of therapeutic claims associated with the product and no attempt was made to determine any other aspect of non-compliance e.g. the presence of scheduled medicines. Dietary supplement-type products (intended for oral use) carrying therapeutic claims and other products (including foods, cosmetics and complementary medicines) carrying therapeutic claims (i.e. unlicensed medicines) all came under the umbrella of “non-compliant”.

Medsafe. (2007, August 29). Overview of the New Zealand Complementary Medicines Industry.

Any product that is promoted with therapeutic claims as defined in the Medicines Act (this definition was updated in July 2014) is considered a medicine for regulatory purposes. I’m not a lawyer, and I’ve never been involved in the approval process for a medicine, but my understanding is that means it needs to go through a process that requires rigorous evidence to support its safety and efficacy, then before it can be sold it must be approved by the Minister of Health.

This is why products that haven’t gone through this process but still have therapeutic claims made about them are “unlicensed medicines”. Because the claims make them medicines for regulatory purposes, but they have not been approved. They might do what they’re claimed to do or they might not, but what they have in common is skirting the regulations that require them to back up claims of safety and efficacy.

It also means that the same product could be treated as an unlicensed medicine in one context but be perfectly acceptable in another. For example, if I advertise bananas as a cure for cancer, then that’s an unlicensed medicine. If I advertise bananas as a tasty fruit, that’s perfectly acceptable.

The review reported the number of compliant vs. non-compliant products found, as well as companies with and without non-compliant products:

Number of Non-compliant Products
Non-Compliant 6253 (51%)
Compliant 6008 (49%)
Total no. products found 12,261
Number of Companies with Non-compliant Products
No. of companies (%)
Compliant 58 (22%)
Non-compliant 205 (78%)
Total no. companies 263

To get some rough idea of the completeness of this review, the Ministry of Health’s natural health products bill regulatory impact statement I mentioned earlier, which I believe was written in 2010 and is an interesting document to read, estimates that there are around 6,600 products and 450 companies in total. However, they also noted that the estimate of 6,600 products might be a significant underestimate and that the real number might have been as high as 20,000.

The regulatory impact statement describes this as “A systematic review of websites undertaken in March 2007”, and gives some examples of non-compliant claims:

Examples of low level claims included claims for providing relief from the symptoms of arthritis or psoriasis, relieving the symptoms of seasonal allergies such as hay-fever, relief of pre-menstrual tension, or temporary relief of the pain of gout, headaches or migraine. Higher level claims included claims for preventing, treating or curing serious diseases, such as cancer.

Ministry of Health. (2010). Regulatory Impact Statement. The Development of a Natural Health Products Bill.

The review broke down the level of non-compliance into low and high severity, and reported the average for different companies:

The severity of non-compliance was also assessed. The severity of non-compliance was based upon the type of therapeutic claims being made by the company for their products and was divided into either high (claims of efficacy about a product for serious diseases and conditions including cancer, depression, diabetes etc.) or low (therapeutic claims likely to be appropriate for a low risk medicine). An “average severity” of the therapeutic claims made be [sic] each company was grouped into low or high.

Medsafe. (2007, August 29). Overview of the New Zealand Complementary Medicines Industry.

Severity of Non-Compliance per Company
Average severity of non-compliance No. of companies (% of total)
Low 144 (74%)
High 50 (26%)
High for >80% of products in catalogue 26 (10%)

The type of product was also reported for non-compliant products:

The non-compliant products (i.e. those carrying therapeutic claims) were further subdivided into cosmetic, food, dietary supplements and complementary medicines to provide some information about the types of products that were non-compliant. Cosmetics included products which were intended to have a primarily cosmetic purpose eg. moisturisers with anti-aging claims and food included products consumed in a normal diet such as fruit drinks carrying therapeutic claims. Dietary supplements included vitamins and minerals and products generally meeting the definition of a dietary supplement according to the Dietary Supplements Regulations 19851 apart from the claims made. Complementary medicines included products that did not fall into any of the above categories, including creams and balms with no primary cosmetic purpose and herbs with a traditional history of use as a medicine.

1 Dietary supplement means any amino acids, edible substances, foodstuffs, herbs, minerals, synthetic nutrients, and vitamins sold singly or in mixtures in controlled dosage forms as cachets, capsules, liquids, lozenges, pastilles, powders, or tablets, which are intended to supplement the intake of those substances normally derived from food.

Medsafe. (2007, August 29). Overview of the New Zealand Complementary Medicines Industry.

Unsurprisingly, as this was a review of the “complementary medicines industry” and “complementary medicines” was the catch-all category, most non-compliant products were in that category. I’m not sure why the total number of non-compliant products is lower than the 6253 non-compliant products reported earlier in the review.

Areas of Non-Compliance
Number (% of total)
Cosmetics 250 (5%)
Foods 252 (5%)
Dietary supplements 1357 (27%)
Complementary medicines 3170 (63%)
Total number of non-compliant products identified 5029

This was all 8 years ago, so what’s happened since? I don’t have any comparable data on how the state of the industry compares to these results today, but the Regulatory Impact Statement document I’ve mentioned a few times offers some insight here. Here’s what was done following this review:

In a subsequent compliance awareness programme, the websites reviewed contained advertisements for over 12,000 products with just over half of these advertisements including therapeutic claims. Out of 355 websites reviewed as part of this programme, 107 were found to be making high-level claims.

Ministry of Health. (2010). Regulatory Impact Statement. The Development of a Natural Health Products Bill.

Miracle Cure!

That’s roughly 30% making high-level claims, which is higher (although possibly not significantly) than the 26% found in the review. Overall non-compliance is “just over half”, compared with 78% from the earlier review. So it’s not entirely clear what impact this “compliance awareness programme” had, but if I had to guess based on what information I have it seems it may have resulted in some low level claims being removed but had no effect on high-level claims.

I asked for this in my OIA request as well, but no written report was prepared so I was just sent the raw data. Unfortunately, this came in the format of a spreadsheet saved as a PDF. It’s text searchable, but given the format and inconsistencies with how results are reported within the file it’s not easy to tell what it says about the industry overall. Also, presumably as it was only ever intended to be an internal document, it contains some strange stuff. For example, it reports Deer Velvet NZ as having 3 out of 1 non-compliant complementary medicines and notes that Crombie and Price “Have homeopathic lollipoops for kids”, whatever that might mean.

You can look at the data yourself here: Compliance of complementary medicines manufacturers 2 October 2007

EDIT 2015/05/31 5:48 pm: Thanks again to Thomas Lumley, who pointed out on Twitter that the open source software Tabula is able to pull the data out of that PDF and turn it into a CSV. I’ve made a CSV version created with Tabula available as well. Here’s a link to it on Google Drive, note that Drive doesn’t display large CSVs very well but you can download it or, if you’re signed in with a Google Account, open it as a Google Spreadsheet: Compliance of complementary medicines manufacturers 2 October 2007

The Regulatory Impact Statement document also has a section on “Compliance and enforcement difficulties” which I found very interesting (emphasis mine):

It has long been recognised that the regulation of natural health products is inadequate and working on achieving new legislation has been underway for close to 20 years. Because new legislation has been anticipated, only limited amendments have been made to update existing legislation, and enforcement activities have largely been limited to dealing with the most serious breaches, such as promoting a product as a cure for cancer when that product is not an approved medicine, or supplying a product that purports to be a dietary supplement but contains undeclared ingredients that are prescription medicines.

Enforcement actions usually arise following investigation of a complaint or concerns about product arriving at the New Zealand border. Enforcement is complicated because the interface between the Medicines Act and Dietary Supplements Regulations is not clearly stated. As a consequence it is usually unclear whether non-compliance should be dealt with under food or medicines legislation. The outcome is generally destruction of product or removal from the market, rather than prosecution. The penalty for non-compliance is extremely low ($500) in comparison with similar legislation and does not act as an effective deterrent.

Enforcement of the Dietary Supplements Regulations has long been problematic due to the large number of breaches relating to the prohibition of therapeutic claims. Past attempts to raise awareness and enforcement of the legislation relating to natural health products met with resistance from both suppliers (who fear they will lose sales) and consumers (who fear they will lose access to products they consider are important to their health and well-being).

There is no provision in the Regulations for a register of dietary supplement products or suppliers. Hence it is difficult to trace suppliers and take appropriate action to protect the public from harm when safety issues arise.

Ministry of Health. (2010). Regulatory Impact Statement. The Development of a Natural Health Products Bill.

This was written 5 years ago. In that time, new legislation has continued to be anticipated: the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill was introduced in September 2011 and passed its second reading in March 2013, but hasn’t progressed since then. Throughout this period, enforcement of consumer protection legislation to prohibit misleading therapeutic claims has remained very low. Even in cases where I’ve submitted complaints, months have often passed before any action was taken by Medsafe.

This makes it sound like the sooner this bill passes, the better. But if the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill passes in its current state, it will allow “traditional evidence” to be used to support health claims. It defines this essentially as evidence of use:

traditional evidence means evidence of traditional use of a substance based on knowledge, beliefs, or practices passed down from generation to generation

Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill 324-2

On the other hand, the bill also requires that summaries of the evidence used to support health claims be provided on a public website in section 13(2A):

Before completing the product notification, the product notifier must make available on an Internet site, in respect of each health benefit claim made for the product, a summary of the evidence that the product notifier relies on to support the claim.

Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill 324-2

I think that part of the bill is fantastic, but I don’t think it will be directly useful to consumers. Surely only a very small minority of consumers will bother to go online to check what evidence is used to support health claims. In cases where claims are supported only by evidence of traditional use, I think a large number of consumers could be misled, and that seems to me like a pretty big loophole in a piece of legislation intended to protect consumers from misleading health claims about “natural health and supplementary products”.

I hope that the bill will pass soon, so that the “natural health” industry will not continue to be effectively unregulated as it has been for years, but I also hope that before this happens the bill will be fixed so that the only evidence permitted to support health claims is evidence that actually supports those health claims.