Mark Hanna of the Society for Science Based Healthcare and I had an exchange over IM a few months ago, where we realised that there are so many bad claims being made for alternative therapies that if you picked a random combination of condition and treatment, chances are high that someone in NZ is making illegal claims that the treatment can successfully treat the condition.

At the suggestion of a friend who is a history professor and writes many scholarly papers, I converted the conversation to a letter to the New Zealand Medical Journal and it was published on Friday.

Mark started with a challenge: "Pick a bogus treatment. Now pick a condition. Someone in New Zealand probably advocates for that"

Here's the list of pairs we tested - only for the last one could we not find anyone making claims:

  • chiropractic (spinal manipulation) and psoriasis (skin condition)
    • Auckland chiropractor - testimonial
  • homeopathy (dilution) and bursitis (joint pain)
    • Northland homeopath - homeopathy can "treat the whole person" and "fit your specific set of symptoms", whereas conventional medicines "can have undesirable side effects, and can also suppress symptoms to the extent that healing is hindered"
  • acupuncture (needles) and pneumonia (lung infection)
    • Christchurch acupuncturist - "common cold and flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, sinusitis, hay-fever"
  • aromatherapy (smells) and flatulence (farting)
    • online Naturopathic health store - Oil of Orange Blossom can treat "indigestion, diarrhoea, flatulence & stomach cramps"
  • Rolfing (massage) and headaches
    • Rolfing practitioner in Whangarei - "arthritis, colds, depression, fatigue, headaches, [and] insomnia"
  • Orgone (Wilhelm Reich energy) and cramps (muscle pain)
    • New Zealand based online shop - testimonial for menstrual cramps alleviated by an "orgone zapper"
  • Reiki (energy transfer) and ulcers (internal sores)
    • online national health practitioner directory in New Zealand - "ulcers, immune system disorders, heart problems, paralysis, and depression"
  • Romi Romi massage (Maori massage) and bunions (big toe deformity)
    • Nothing 😦

Here is my letter in full:

Pick a bogus treatment...

At the Society for Science Based Healthcare, we spend a lot of time looking at dodgy therapeutic claims. Most of these claims are made by practitioners of alternative therapies. A few months ago Mark Hanna, a colleague of mine at SBH, messaged me with a curious thought:

"Pick a bogus treatment. Now pick a condition. Someone in New Zealand probably advocates for that"

This was an interesting idea - that there is so much misinformation about healthcare these days, there's a high likelihood that someone in New Zealand is claiming their chosen "alternative" therapy can treat pretty much any condition you can think of.

An easy starting place to look for people making claims is online, and there's a nice feature in google's search facility where you can restrict the search to certain domain names. Mark had already tested out a combination of treatment and condition before challenging me - chiropractic and psoriasis. For this pairing, the google search to use would be:

chiropractic psoriasis site:nz

The "site:nz" part of the search restricts the search to only websites whose domain names end in .nz - it's an easy way to restrict the search to sites that are likely to be New Zealand based.

With the above search terms, Mark had found an Auckland chiropractor who has a lengthy testimonial on their website describing the use of chiropractic for treating psoriasis.

It was my turn. I picked homeopathy and bursitis. Surely nobody's claiming that sugar pills can treat joint issues? After less than a minute of searching, I found a homeopath in Northland who claims that for bursitis and other joint pain, homeopathy can "treat the whole person" and "fit your specific set of symptoms", whereas conventional medicines "can have undesirable side effects, and can also suppress symptoms to the extent that healing is hindered". Damn!

Mark Hanna's next duo was acupuncture and pneumonia. He found a Christchurch acupuncturist who is claiming to be able to treat "common cold and flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, sinusitis, hay-fever".

At this point I declared the challenge to be "outright depressing", so I tried to cheer myself up with a more humorous pairing - aromatherapy and flatulence. It turns out that (at least according to an online Naturopathic health store) Oil of Orange Blossom can treat "indigestion, diarrhoea, flatulence & stomach cramps".

Mark Hanna upped the ante with Rolfing and headaches - for those not in the know, Rolfing is "soft tissue manipulation and movement education". It turns out there's a Rolfing practitioner in Whangarei who can treat "arthritis, colds, depression, fatigue, headaches, [and] insomnia".

My response to Mark's Rolfing was to go for some New Age energy weirdness - orgone and cramps. Orgone energy is usually accessed using a colourful resin pyramid with a copper coil embedded in it, although back in the 50's you were expected to sit in a small layered wood and metal box. This one was more difficult to find, but within a couple of minutes I'd uncovered a New Zealand based online shop that sells orgone devices, and has a testimonial where menstrual cramps had apparently been alleviated by an "orgone zapper".

Mark Hanna announced he was going "weirder" with Reiki and ulcers, but this was disappointingly easy to find - there is an online national health practitioner directory in New Zealand where it is claimed that Reiki may be able to help with, amongst many other serious conditions, "ulcers, immune system disorders, heart problems, paralysis, and depression". Remember as you read that list that Reiki is a channeling of the "universal life force" through the palms of the practitioner into the patient. Often Reiki practitioners don't even touch their patients, but merely move their hands a few inches over them as the patient lies on a massage table.

Our challenge finally came to a halt when I chose Romi Romi massage and bunions. Romi Romi is "traditional Māori massage", and it's a fairly niche therapy. Hah! I'd found a dud. The unlikeliness of massage helping with bunions, paired with a paucity of websites offering Romi Romi, meant that I'd found a combination that does not appear to be advocated for in New Zealand - at least online.

This fun exchange reminded me of a more serious point I think is very important to keep in mind when considering alternative therapies. Unlike conventional therapies, which have a limited scope, there is a tendency for the practitioners of alternative therapies to advertise their services as something of a panacea. No matter the therapy, there will be people claiming it can treat all conditions - up to and including cancer. Many of these claims are repeated by official industry bodies, despite a lack of evidence. These kinds of claims are likely breaching the Medicines Act, but they have become so prevalent in the last few years that enforcement of our current regulation in New Zealand is failing to keep up with this tidal wave of misleading medical advertising.

Mark Honeychurch, Secretary, Society for Science Based Healthcare, Wellington