My university colleagues and I recently conducted an interesting comparison of British and German broadsheet newspapers, assessing all their reports on health matters. Three surprises emerged from the results. First, the British papers published three times more about health care, particularly complementary medicine. Second, the tone of reporting was balanced in the German articles but, in Britain, it was clearly biased in favour of complementary medicine. Third, most of the positive, often overtly promotional reporting on complementary medicine seemed to be based on anecdotes - we seem to be keen on reading that Sir Cliff Richard takes ginseng for his youthful looks but uninterested in learning about the scientific evidence on ginseng.
Examples of anecdotes related to complementary therapies range from the overtly trivial to the profoundly incredible. One is hardly surprised then to witness a second, closely related phenomenon. To satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite for anecdotes, British newspapers have, in a major way, gone into issuing advice on complementary medicine. Even the most respectable British papers do not find such feature articles beneath them. They are obviously popular and help to sell papers. Let me present a few examples to you.
Dr John Briffa in the Observer advises a patient to consult a kinesiologist as it might "help reveal any food sensitivities". In the same paper, the "Barefoot Doctor" suggests a young woman take the Chinese herbal remedy dong quai to help become pregnant again after a recent miscarriage. Susan Clark in the Sunday Times advises a mother to give "skullcap" to her seven-year-old child to aid sleep on a long-haul flight.
Even though all this advice is followed by a warning to consult your own doctor, you may think all this is only a bit of harmless fun which should not be spoiled by a science nerd like me. Well, read on and think again. The studies of which I am aware indicate that what is known as applied kinesi- ology (a treatment system based on the notion that illness stems from accumulation of toxins around muscle groups) is no good for identifying food sensitivities. Undeterred by this evidence, kinesiologists may tell their clients, don't eat this and avoid that. Soon the patient's life becomes a misery while the health problem is likely to persist. The advice to take dong quai capsules may sound simple enough but, in fact, it isn't. Dong quai is a herb which has been associated with serious side effects.
More important, we cannot be sure that it doesn't harm the baby during early pregnancy. Healthcare professionals should recommend medicines during early pregnancy only when positive evidence exists for their safety. Finally, skullcap is potentially one of the more dangerous herbs. It has been associated with severe liver damage which could even be fatal. A public recommendation to use it for relatively trivial reasons in children does not seem to me to be a sensible thing at all.
Other articles give me the impression that complementary medicine is being trivialised often at the expense of the health and wealth of the consumer. "Keeping your chakras balanced and your energies channelled takes time, effort and money," according to Calgary Avansino writing in Vogue. Money is certainly an important theme in all these stories.
The Vogue article continues by explaining how the woman of today spends her money on complementary medicine. A former creative consultant spends £2,500 a month and a "new mother", obviously less well off, has to cope with £1,125 a month on complementary therapies. The conversion of a branch of medicine into a fashion accessory, it seems to me, is complete.
When I read newspaper reports about complementary medicine, I often despair. Do health journalists not have a duty to issue advice that has a good scientific basis? After all, we are not talking about shoe laces, a designer handbag or New World chardonnay. We are dealing with the important matter of people's health. Anecdotes are never a reliable guide to health matters. My advice would be: don't try this at home.
· Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula medical school at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth.