Sunday, March 11, 2012

One-Source Reporting: Massage Therapist Speaks for World Health Organization

Barbara Bean Mellinger’s “Feeling Fit” reporting this week stumbled into the one-source trap.  Mellinger also tripped over the biased narrator trap.  Then she fell into the lazy trap.   All this happened the moment Mellinger told herself, in her role as reporter, that she can best serve Sun Coast Media Group subscribers by relying on a massage therapist to report what World Health Organization says about acupuncture.

That massage therapist told Mellenger that WHO  recognizes acupuncture as a treatment for 43 conditions. No, it doesn’t.

WHO asked acupuncturists who attended a 1979 conference in Bejing to list conditions they treated with the method. That's where the 43-disease list comes from.  That list -- now more than 30 years old -- has nothing to do with WHO endorsing or recommending these treatments.  It has everything to do with what motivated a particular group of belief-based, spiritual and shamanistic “healers” to stick needles a third-of-a-century ago  into people, hoping to make them feel better (and when the placebo effect kicked in, it probably did -- the epitome of treating a symptom instead of a cause).  And the list itself should give anyone pause simply because it ranges from cancer to psychiatric illnesses – disorders that have such widely varying mechanisms and triggers that it’s beyond credulity that one treatment would address them all.
When Mellinger fails to confirm the local businesswoman's claims by visiting the WHO website herself, she misses the organization’s August 2010 bulletin:  "Acupuncture-related adverse reactions" include collapsed lung, cardiac irregularity, spinal cord injury, and viral hepatitis, local pain from needling, bleeding, hematoma, death, organ trauma, hospital admission.   The bulletin noted that the adverse events occurring in 6.7 percent to 15 percent of patients.
  Nothing replaces going to the source in good reporting.  But there is a well-vetted, generalist's website that explains all this in layman’s terms,  "Science Based Medicine."   Anyone writing for a health publication would do well to understand what the phrase "science based" means.
“The consensus of the best clinical studies on acupuncture show that there is no specific effect of sticking needles into acupuncture points. Choosing random points works just as well, as does poking the skin with toothpicks rather than penetrating the skin with a needle to elicit the alleged “de qi”. The most parsimonious interpretation of the evidence is that the needles (i.e. acupuncture itself) are superfluous — any perceived benefit comes from the therapeutic interaction. This has been directly studied, and the evidence suggests that the way to maximize the subjective effects from the ritual of acupuncture is to enhance the interaction with the practitioner, and has nothing to do with the acupuncture itself. Acupuncture is a clear example of selling a specific procedure based entirely on non-specific effects from the therapeutic interaction — a good bedside manner and some hopeful encouragement.
And, to make the "Feeling Fit" tab look particularly stoopid this week, the issue includes Laura Korman, a chiropractor, selling spinal adjustments for "subluxations"  that cure deafness and scoliosis -- to name only a few of the disorders she identifies as treatable with chiro-quackery.  Among those who monitor healthfraud, this is called the "woo factor:" patients pay for the undivided attention of a white lab coat, get a nice massage, and maybe a couple of quasi-magical instruments to tap, tap, tap over a back ache, and viola! They feel better! Science calls it the placebo effect.  Placebo effects are good for woo-miesters because it makes it easy to persuade folks to sign up for a series of treatments.

Need evidence? Ask a chiropractor to show you a "subluxation" on an x-ray.  Real doctors have their x-rays read by a skilled radiologist (M.D.), but not chiros.  That's because only chiros can "see" a subluxation. You gotta beeeeelieve!

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