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Edzard Ernst: the prince and me

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 03 August 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4937
  1. David Cohen, freelance journalist

As he steps down from his post as the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst talks to David Cohen about homoeopathy, university politics, and Prince Charles

“I’m not as undiplomatic as I look,” says Edzard Ernst. Sat in the conservatory of his seaside home by the Suffolk coast, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine does seem to be a picture of polite gentility. Not so a few days earlier when, at a press conference in London, he branded Prince Charles a snakeoil salesman for promoting homoeopathy. The statement made headlines across the world. Ernst chuckles at the mention of this. “I know what I’m doing and I do it on purpose,” he says. “I’m not against royalty, I’m just confrontational with Prince Charles because he is speaking out of his proverbial when it comes to medicine and science.”

Ernst has spent the past 18 years studying the safety and efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs). He has masterminded over 30 clinical trials and 200 systematic reviews. His results have led him to criticise many CAMs as no better than placebo, and to say some even do harm. He has also found that around 20 work better than placebo (Br J Gen Pract 2008;58:208-9). His results have often brought him into open confrontation with both CAM proponents—they feel he’s out to rubbish their field—and conventional medics, who think he’s devoting precious effort and resources to what, they are convinced, is quackery. He insists that neither is the case. “I honestly think that I am entirely evidence led,” he says.

Ernst cites his Damascene conversion over homoeopathy as a case in point. At the beginning of his career, Ernst worked in a homoeopathic hospital, and his general practitioner treated his family with homoeopathy. “I was open to the idea …

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