The Spread of Medical Misinformation

Artwork: Bonnie Burns

CONTENT WARNING: Brief Mention of Climate Change

Coming from a chemistry and biology background, I frequently question medical advice that is emotionally appealing but not backed by rigorous scientific research. Alternative medicine, for example, takes advantage of public fear to promote their arguably bogus treatments. The recent coronavirus outbreak is just one scenario exploited by the industry among many others, such as cancer and neurological disorders. Like with climate change denial and anti-vaccination movements, the rejection of evidence-based approaches in favour of ideology and profit repeatedly overpowers science.

Acupuncture is one type of alternative medicine that is part of traditional Chinese medicine and unbound by the constraints of the scientific method. Based on a mythical, ancient philosophy of invisible meridians controlling energy (or Qi) flow through the body, acupuncture has successfully invaded the health care system. The state of New Mexico defines acupuncture as:

“the surgical use of needles inserted into and removed from the body and the use of other devices, modalities and procedures at specific locations on the body for the prevention, cure or correction of any disease, illness, injury, pain or other condition by controlling and regulating the flow and balance of energy and function to restore and maintain health.”

According to acupuncture practitioners, they can treat pretty much anything. Their latest pursuit is, of course, the novel coronavirus. The Acupuncture Healing Centre, located in Chicago’s Chinatown, released an article in late January on how acupuncture can be used to prevent coronavirus. This is supposedly done by facilitating the body’s immune response to expel the pathogen through points that supposedly strengthen digestion, breathing and the mind.

However, I argue the practice is a form of psychological manipulation and theatrical placebo – the more you expect it to work, the more likely you are to exhibit symptom relief. It may seem like a ‘real’ medical treatment, but it lacks scientific evidence to support its bold claims and does not truly cure or prevent conditions. Short-term treatment with acupuncture does not produce long-term benefits, and its apparent effects are not caused by the treatment itself. Decades of research and over 3000 trials show that any possible specific effect from acupuncture is clinically insignificant.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are unaware of acupuncture’s ineffectiveness and quackery, so the practice continues to grow. This is largely because of poor communication, misleading information published online and increasing government approval. This makes it far more difficult than necessary to obtain correct information on acupuncture. We can’t blame people for not knowing, however, given that we often have to dig deep and critically analyse to find the facts. Yet there are a few examples across the globe contributing to the spread of misinformation and the acupuncture industry.

Let’s start with Australia. The Better Health Channel, funded by the Victorian Government, has an information page on acupuncture procedures and its effectiveness. The page has a summary box at the top with what the authors consider the main points to take away. But the summary ignores the most important piece of information: that there is no systematically reviewed scientific evidence to prove acupuncture’s effectiveness. This point is also glossed over in the body. Most people will not read the whole page and even if they do, they will easily miss this key point. Additionally, there is a statement at the very bottom of the page which asserts that “content on this website … does not in any way endorse or support such therapy, service, product or treatment and is not in- tended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional” [emphasis added]. Considering how few people read the fine print, I question why this statement was not placed at the beginning of the page.

Now on to America and China. As of this year, acupuncture is covered by Medicare in the United States. In China, acupuncture is pretty much recommended by the National Health Commission. Not only will this result in conditions not being properly treated, but also lead people to believe that acupuncture is an official and effective practice approved by medicine.

Finally, the Vickers meta-analysis. This analysis from 2012 is one of the most cited studies used to argue that acupuncture works (much like the infamous Wakefield paper that linked the MMR vaccine with autism). However, the study shows nothing of the sort and has several issues in its methods. For starters, the authors had an enormous pro-acupuncture bias, which caused them to overcall the results. Secondly, the controls used were entirely problematic because the participants knew they were receiving no treatment. Even the authors acknowledge that “because the comparison between acupuncture and no-acupuncture cannot be blinded, both performance and response bias are possible.” Basically, the meta-analysis is completely useless, despite what acupuncture advocates would have you believe.

Medical misinformation can spread like wildfire on social media and through word of mouth. Evaluating information is particularly important during this time of international health emergency. But people forget to critically assess sources before arriving at a conclusion, leading to a growing acceptance of deceptive alternative practices like acupuncture.