Thursday July 1, 2004
Â· I always thought the monarchy was there to remind us that inherited wealth and privilege are alive and well, and to stop us falling into the American trap of imagining that we live in a meritocracy: but apparently it’s there to set the health research agenda. Prince Charles is keen that we should not ignore the experience of the one person he met who got better with the Gerson nutritional regime for treating cancer. Let’s ignore the fact that the American Cancer Society regard it as dangerous; that in two years San Diego county hospitals treated 13 patients with campylobacter sepsis from the Gerson clinic, probably due to the raw calves’ liver injections; that several patients have been admitted comatose with low sodium levels; and that caffeine enemas are jolly dangerous and have been associated with severe colitis, infections and death. No. Let’s focus on the research already done on Gerson. One long-term study of 21 patients (by a naturopath, no less) found that only one was alive five years after treatment. In 1986, researchers found that despite their claims, some patients from the Gerson clinic were not even followed up. There are papers claiming efficacy for nutritional therapy that find a positive effect, but without bothering to give us the figures. Since then, a handful of studies have been done, suggesting a minor positive effect, but the flaws in their methodologies render them worthless.
Â· Let’s get this straight: research is not difficult, and it doesn’t need a lot of money. Lots of medical research is done by junior doctors, in their “spare time”. Alternative therapists are welcome to research money, but it would be nice if some of the money they get could go towards keeping follow-up records, which doesn’t cost much, and even do some proper statistics. So if you’re a quack and you’re angry about the lack of evidence supporting your ideas, here are some fun ideas for the holidays. Buy How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-Based Medicine by Trisha Greenhalgh (BMJ Books), an excellent introduction to how research works. It’s even available free online. Make friends with someone in a university or hospital, and you can use their audit department or statistics advisory service to help you design the study, often for free. But please, at least put the figures in your paper. And register your studies on the national database, so we can have a good laugh when you turn up negative findings.