Chiropractors struggle to drop testimonials

Chiropractors struggle to drop testimonials

The latest newsletter from the regulator of chiropractors offers an insight into the industry’s culture problems.

In their June newsletter, the chair of the Chiropractic Board has admonished chiropractors for a discussion on how to circumvent consumer protection regulations:

At a recent chiropractic function, a presentation was given on advertising, chiropractors’ responsibilities and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The information was well presented and informative however ensuing discussion revealed that the message is clearly not being heard by all. I urge you to please refer to my email of 30 August 2017 that clearly outlines your responsibilities, and reiterates very important points set out in the Board’s Advertising and Social Media Policy, and references to all other responsibilities. I was particularly disappointed in discussion among practitioners on how to best circumvent the prohibition on posting testimonials on Facebook – some very creative ideas were invented.

The Chiropractic Board published their current Advertising Policy in November 2015. It notes, correctly, that the use of health testimonials in advertising is prohibited in New Zealand by Section 58(1)(c)(iii) of the Medicines Act 1981:

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:

f) uses testimonials whether from patients or any other person (see section on Medicines Act);

This section [58 of the Medicines Act] provides further at Section 58(1)(c) that it is an offence to imply, claim, indicate or suggest that a medicine, treatment or device is a panacea or infallible for any condition or is recommended by an appropriately qualified person or had beneficially affected the health of a particular person or class of persons, whether real or fictitious.

This wording clearly prevents a health practitioner publishing testimonials.

Unfortunately, this law is widely ignored in New Zealand, particularly by promoters of dodgy health products. In my experience even when breaches are brought to the attention of the agency responsible for enforcing it – Medsafe, in this instance – nothing is likely to happen.

In 2015, my colleague at the Society for Science Based Healthcare Mark Honeychurch and I looked at how often New Zealand chiropractors were publishing health testimonials and various misleading health claims in online advertising. This was prior to the publication of the Chiropractic Board’s current advertising policy, but over 20 years after the law prohibiting the use of health testimonials in advertisements was passed. We found that just over a third of the 137 websites we looked at used health testimonials.

Thankfully, this does seem to have decreased following the introduction of the Advertising Policy, but the recent newsletter seems to imply that chiropractors are not happy about being unable to use testimonials to promote their services.

When looking at how often chiropractors use misleading claims and health testimonials in 2015, we hadn’t looked at advertising on social media. While writing this post, I have searched for “NZ chiropractic” on Facebook and clicked on the top three pages that showed up in the results – Bays Chiropractic NZ, Chiropractic Touch, and Revolution Chiropractic NZ – to have a quick look (I didn’t look through any comments or watch any videos) and see if any of them had been publishing testimonials there.

I didn’t see testimonials on the Bays Chiropractic NZ page, but I couldn’t help but notice that they shared an image in February featuring many misleading claims about chiropractic manipulation, including that it can reduce allergies, asthma, and ADHD. As the Chiropractic Board of Australia has clarified in their own Statement on Advertising in 2016, these claims are not supported by evidence:

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.

In August 2017, Chiropractic Touch posted a testimonial claiming that chiropractic manipulations had cured someone’s asthma. They used one of the “creative ideas” commonly used by chiropractors to try to circumvent the prohibition on publishing health testimonials: telling the testimonial in the context of it inspiring a chiropractor to pursue their career rather than framing it as a patient’s experience.

I didn’t see any testimonials on Revolution Chiropractic NZ’s page, but they do seem to publish a lot of posts about adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is a fake diagnosis that I’ve seen most often used by naturopaths to sell unnecessary supplements. Revolution Chiropractic NZ also shared some of the same misleading claims as Bays Chiropractic NZ, including particularly concerning misleading claims about being able to treat children and infants for conditions such as colic and ear infections.

Whatever improvements there may have been over the past few years, it seems the chiropractic industry in New Zealand is still struggling with its culture of ignoring or sidestepping patient protection regulations.

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State-Approved Health Fraud Scams

State-Approved Health Fraud Scams

A decades old loophole in New Zealand’s patient protection legislation is letting quacks get away with health fraud, right under the regulator’s nose.

In New Zealand, patients are protected from health fraud scams by the Medicines Act. This legislation, which is enforced by Medsafe, only allows products making strong health claims to be sold if they have been approved by the Minister of Health.

In order to get approved, a medicine needs to pass a rigorous submission process that includes providing robust evidence to substantiate all of the health claims that will be made about it. In this way, patients should be protected against health fraud scams.

Health fraud scams refer to products that claim to prevent, treat, or cure diseases or other health conditions, but are not proven safe and effective for those uses.

Health Fraud Scams – US Food & Drug Administration

Except, there are some products that have this approval but are not been backed up by evidence.

When the Medicines Act came into effect 35 years ago, in 1981, all products that would be covered by the legislation which were already on the market were given automatic approval. This included a bunch of homeopathic products manufactured by the company Weleda.

Weleda, unfortunately, is still in operation today and still sells many of the same products. They operate out of Havelock North, which strikes me as somewhat ironic given their business is based on selling water as medicine. They’re far from tiny, too. In the 2014 financial year alone they made $4.85m in revenue from retail sales.


Usually, when you see a homeopathic product for sale in New Zealand, its marketing materials will be full of weasel words like “supports”. These ads typically manage to imply a whole lot without really saying anything at all.

Support for a healthy heart.

Maintains joint health.

Supports your body’s natural response to winter ills and chills.

Wink wink, nudge nudge.

There are also many cases where this promotion oversteps the generous line set by the Advertising Standards Authority. Myself and others at the Society for Science Based Healthcare work to bring these to the ASA’s attention when we find them, as part of our efforts to reduce the amount of medical misinformation people are subjected to.

Usually this is a pretty straightforward process, especially for homeopathic products. After all, the evidence on homeopathy is abundantly clear:

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

Statement on Homeopathy – Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council

And so are the ASA’s requirements:

Statements and claims shall be valid and shall be able to be substantiated. Substantiation should exist prior to a claim being made.

Therapeutic and Health Advertising Code – Advertising Standards Authority

However, a recent complaint that we’d expected to be as straightforward as previous ones turned out to be anything but. My colleague at the Society for Science Based Healthcare, Mark Honeychurch, submitted a complaint earlier this year about an advertisement for one of Weleda’s products: Weleda Cold and Flu Drops.

The ad for this product on Weleda’s website gave clear directions for its use, which included strong and unambiguous claims about what the product is meant to do:

Take at the onset of cold or flu to relieve symptoms — fever, muscle ache, headache, sore throat, sneezing and runny nose. Take with Weleda Echinacea/Thuja Comp. Active Strength Immune Support for additional effectiveness. Does not cause drowsiness.

Weleda New Zealand

The problem with this ad is, of course, that there’s no evidence that this product can relieve any of those symptoms. Nor is it at all plausible.

That formed the basis of Honeychurch’s complaint. So it was quite a surprise when the ASA ruled to not uphold it, and passed on this response from Weleda:

Weleda Cold & Flu Drops is a registered medicine with Medsafe (TT50-8039) and is permitted to carry therapeutic claims. In relation to the complaint, the recommendations for the product on the website are consistent with the registered packaging indications which are as follows:

  • Take at the onset of cold or flu to relieve symptoms – fever, muscle ache, headache, sore throat, sneezing and runny nose.

Given that the statement on the website is consistent with the registered indications, we consider that the claims do not contravene the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code. We trust that our response resolves this issue.

Weleda New Zealand

Communication with Medsafe quickly uncovered the fact that this approval was granted in 1981, when the Medicines Act came into effect. The issue we identified was that Weleda was using this approval as a substitute for the substantiation required by the ASA’s codes. Under usual circumstances this would make some sense, as Medsafe’s approval typically requires that sort of substantiation. But these are not usual circumstances, and we thought this was a misuse of the approval Weleda had been granted.

Honeychurch sent a list of written questions to Medsafe, to get to the bottom of this and to aid with his appeal to the ASA. Two of his questions were particularly important, in my opinion. The first sought to clarify whether or not Weleda had ever given Medsafe evidence that their product can do what it says on the label:

What substantiation, if any, was used to accept these indications [for Weleda’s Cold & Flu Drops], either when the product was “grandfathered” into Medsafe’s Current registration system, or at any other time?

The product was grandfathered into the current regulatory Scheme following the enactment of the Medicines Act 1981. Products that were eligible for grandfathering were those that were already marketed in New Zealand and had a demonstrated history of safe use. For grandfathered products, the date of approval was deemed to be the earliest date of market availability provided by the product owner.

The product was originally indicated as a homoeopathic medicine for all types of influenza and Colds. These indications Were accepted at the time.

Subsequent to the original approval under the Medicines Act the indications have been modified in 2007 and 2014. The modified indications have been accepted as they are all encompassed by the Original appoval.

Medsafe

The lack of a clear answer from Medsafe here is frustrating. As far as I can tell, their answer means Weleda demonstrated that their product had a history of safe use, and provided the earliest date of its market availability. But it also seems Weleda never gave Medsafe any evidence to support the claims made about the product’s efficacy.

The other important question Honeychurch asked regarded the scope of the problem. Although this was the only homeopathic product we’d found to have been approved by Medsafe, it seemed unlikely to be the only one that exists.

What other Weleda products, and homeopathic products from other manufacturers, are registered with Medsafe as medicines, and what indications are there for each of them?

You can search for Weleda’s approved medicines that have been transferred into the therapeutics database using the search function above [http://www.medsafe.govt.nz/regulatory/DbSearch.asp] and entering Weleda into the sponsor box. Please note that products in the database are those which have undergone regulatory activity since being grandfathered.

Weleda also notified over 1000 homoeopathic medicines to be grandfathered. The approved product details are only held in hard copy files. Many of the products are intended to be supplied to practitioners of homoeopathy or direct to patients through speciality retail stores.

Providing the requested information would require extensive research and collation and Cannot be Completed within the timeframe you have indicated as necessary for your to lodge an appeal to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Medsafe

As a lower estimate of the number of health fraud scams approved by Medsafe, “over 1000” is a pretty scary number.

So what is there to be done about it?


Honeychurch started by submitting an appeal to the ASA, hoping the answers he’d recieved from Medsafe would be enough to overturn the decision. After all, the decision should hinge on the assumption that Medsafe’s approval of Weleda’s products implies the substantiation required by the ASA’s codes, and that assumption appears to be false.

But the ASA instead ruled to maintain their original decision. This ruling was released today, and makes for interesting reading. For example, this part of Weleda’s response clarifies that they truly have never had to submit evidence of efficacy for their products, simply because they have been sold for a very long time (emphasis in the original):

Weleda accepts that Weleda Cold & Flu Drops was ‘grandfathered’ into the current medicines registration system following the enactment of the Medicines Act 1981 (which replaced the Food and Drug Act 1969 which in turn replaced the Food and Drugs Act 1947. Cold and Flu Drops received ‘default’ approval as a medicine on 31 December 1969, three months before the Food and Drug Act 1969 came into force on 1 April 1970. This ‘grandfathering’ process however was applied to all relevant products at the time, including what may be called ‘conventional’ medicines. There was no favouritism toward one type of medicine or another and there was no requirement to (re-)submit evidence of efficacy to be registered.

Weleda New Zealand

The rest of their response makes it seem pretty clear to me that they’re using this historical approval as a shield to stop the ASA from requiring they provide robust evidence of efficacy that simply does not exist:

In the absence of a statutory or regulatory requirement under either the Food and Drug 1969 [sic] or the Medicines Act 1981 for Weleda to freshly prove the efficacy of our Cold & Flu Drops, we do not accept that it is open to M. Honeychurch to demand we do so by way of this proceeding — particularly when they have provided no evidence to support the view that Cold and Flu Drops has no efficacy.

Weleda New Zealand

And if that all wasn’t clear enough, Medsafe also weighed in on the issue of whether or not substantiation had been supplied by Weleda (this time the emphasis is mine):

The ‘approval date’ published on the Medsafe website in relation to this product (and most Weleda products) indicates approval at 31 December 1969. This means that these products were determined to have been legally on the market prior to the commencement of the Food and Drug Act 1969 and could continue to be marketed under the current legislation, with the same indications. Proof of efficacy is not held by Medsafe.

Medsafe

In my opinion, the decision the ASA should have been making should have been “does this advertisement breach our codes?”. Indeed, this is the question they usually ask when dealing with a complaint, and the fact that advertisements that breach their codes might not be downright illegal isn’t usually enough to stop them from upholding a complaint. But for some reason they’ve decided this case is different:

In relation to the complaint before it, the Appeal Board considered the key issue was a matter outside its jurisdiction, namely the process agreed to with the regulator during a change to legislation some decades ago.

The appeal Board noted the position of the Complainant with regard to the ‘grandfathering’ of certain products but agreed this was a matter that should be raised directly with Medsafe.

Advertising Standards Authority


The “grandfathering” process that allowed these hundreds of ineffective health products to get a free pass seems to have been intended to keep low risk products on the market, regardless of whether or not they are effective. With the unfortunately named Natural Health Products Bill lined up to wrap some much needed patient protection legislation around the area of low risk health products of dubious efficacy, it might seem like a great time for these “grandfathered” products to be transferred into that framework.

Unfortunately, the proposed regulations associated with the Natural Health Products Bill explicitly exclude homeopathic products from their rules. In our dealings with Medsafe, time and time again I have come away with the clear impression that they only care about safety issues. So long as a health fraud scam is safe, Medsafe is content to do nothing about it.

Magic water? Sure, it’s just water. What’s the harm?

I can certainly see the justification for that. Safety issues are typically more pressing than low risk products that are only doing more indirect harm like causing people to delay effective treatment, putting strain on finances, and damaging public health literacy. Often it’s entirely appropriate for Medsafe to rely on our first line of defence – the Advertising Standards Authority – to deal with misleading health claims. But when that fails, something needs to be done.

There is an ocean of health fraud scams in New Zealand. It’s high time the regulator responsible for enforcing our patient protection legislation started giving a damn about it.

We’ve got in touch with Medsafe to request a meeting in the new year, to discuss what path there might be for addressing the issues I’ve touched on here. While I’m hoping for the best, I’m not holding my breath.

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.

ACC and Acupuncture

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

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

Dear Ms Collins,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,
Mark Hanna

Here’s the chart I attached to that email:

ACC Acupuncture Spending 1994-2013

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

Response from Judith Collins 18 June 2014

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

In 2011, ACC’s research team also conducted a literature review of the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain. It found the most convincing evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture related to the treatment of chronic neck pain and the improvement of pain and mobility in chronic shoulder pain. Evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture is not dissimilar to other physical therapies such as physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy.

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

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

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

EDIT 2014/08/30

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the “Key findings” of this review:

General

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

Lower back

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

Neck

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

Shoulder

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

Knee

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

Ankle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture is most convincing for the treatment of chronic neck and shoulder pain. In terms of other injuries, the evidence is either inconclusive or insufficient. The state of the evidence of the effectiveness of acupuncture is not dissimilar to other physical therapies such as physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy.

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

In 2011, ACC’s research team also conducted a literature review of the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of musculoskeletal pain. It found the most convincing evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture related to the treatment of chronic neck pain and the improvement of pain and mobility in chronic shoulder pain. Evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture is not dissimilar to other physical therapies such as physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Drawing of the human body showing acupuncture meridians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I won’t hold my breath.