Side effects? Nobody said anything about side effects…

Researchers into complementary and alternative medicine are disregarding “basic rules of publication ethics” by routinely failing to report the potentially serious side effects of treatments, an academic has claimed.

May 14, 2012

Edzard Ernst, who will retire next month as professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said his team had conducted several investigations which revealed that, in clinical trials of alternative medicine, adverse effects tended not to be mentioned.

“This is not because none occurred, as that would need to be mentioned, too. The reason is that investigators do not think of reporting them,” he said.

He added that his team had recently examined 60 reports of chiropractic clinical trials and found that 29 failed to mention adverse effects – despite previous research suggesting that 50 per cent of patients experienced them after chiropractic treatment; some of the side effects could even be fatal.

“Not only does this violate basic rules of publication ethics, it also means that, due to under-reporting, our knowledge of adverse effects of alternative medicine is incomplete and not reliable. If investigators fail to report, we will not know,” Professor Ernst said.

“Alternative medicines might be safe, but we simply cannot be sure that this assumption is correct. Most likely, we have a too optimistic impression about the risks involved.”

Professor Ernst’s broadside comes after the University of Aberdeen decided against establishing a chair in “integrated healthcare and management”, whose incumbent would have been charged with investigating the efficacy of anthroposophical medicine.

Anthroposophy is based on the teaching of Austrian spiritualist Rudolf Steiner and was described by Professor Ernst as “pure quackery”.

He also questioned whether any appointee could be scientifically independent given that the chair was to have been funded by anthroposophy supporters.

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