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Alternative Medicine

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7535.241 (Published 26 January 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:241

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Dr Garrow’s criticism of my small contribution to the BBC2 programme
on healing is inaccurate, surprisingly selective and misses the point
entirely. In addition, his objection to sequential allocation is far from
universal. Many scientists regard it as a legitimate research technique.
He is also at odds with Exeter University’s ethics committee who approved
my trial design, with my academic supervisor there, and with the peer-
reviewed Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine who published my paper
in 1998. Their opinions, based on a thorough knowledge of how the trial
was conducted, are perhaps of more relevance.

Dr Garrow is inaccurate because the trial I carried out some 10 years
ago was not designed to test what he describes as “the healing powers of
spiritual healers” versus placebo but to see what happened to patients
with long term conditions attending a healing clinic and receiving no
other treatments. I employed standard statistical techniques (checked by
an academic statistician) and patients who received healing showed
statistically significant improvement in symptoms, anxiety and function:
all p<_0.01. it="it" was="was" one="one" of="of" the="the" first="first" controlled="controlled" trials="trials" into="into" effect="effect" healing="healing" and="and" should="should" certainly="certainly" not="not" be="be" regarded="regarded" as="as" last="last" word.="word." but="but" stands="stands" a="a" useful="useful" methodologically="methodologically" appropriate="appropriate" piece="piece" research="research" its="its" time.="time." p="p"/> Equally inaccurate is his claim that I said during the programme that
I “encourage patients to consult a healer”. As anyone who cares to watch a
recording or read a transcript will see, I did not say anything of the
sort. I do offer patients the opportunity to see a healer alongside
conventional therapies as one option within whatever appropriate
treatments are available, but take care neither to encourage nor
discourage.

In practice, a substantial number of patients are enthusiastic about
healing: so many that my practice now employs two healers who have a
lengthy waiting list. They are not paid but receive travel and out of
pocket expenses from a special fund that relies entirely on donations.
There is no cost to the NHS. In the twelve years that my practice has
provided this service, we have seen not one adverse effect nor received a
single complaint. Would that were true of everything else we do.

I am not the only doctor to utilise healing, as the programme
demonstrated. A Leeds-based oncologist employs a healer to provide group
sessions with patients undergoing cancer treatment with some success.
Curiously, Dr Garrow has no criticism for this NHS funded exercise.

There is one point on which I would wholeheartedly agree with him.
The placebo effect is indeed very powerful, as I point out in my book The
Human Effect (Radcliffe Press, 2000) and as the programme illustrated with
its examination of sham knee surgery in the USA and a Canadian study that
demonstrated how Parkinson’s Disease patients produced dopamine when given
inert saline. The placebo effect appears to be a trigger to the body’s
natural healing ability that depends on some sort of interpersonal action.
A large number of academics and doctors like myself believe we should not
sneer but investigate it. That is what the BBC2 programme was about, and
that is the point that Dr Garrow has missed. It may well be that the
benefits of healing are due to placebo. If so, then this is significant
and tells us much about the treatment of long term conditions. His demand
to limit all research to double-blind randomised trials may be appropriate
for drugs and other technological interventions but those techniques can
never effectively test treatments where the interpersonal effect is a
significant factor.

I became interested in healing because so many of my patients told me
they were receiving treatment from a local healer. They are not alone.
Several surveys have told us that as many as 70% of the British public use
a variety of complementary therapies. But 50% of patients do not tell
their doctor they are doing so, even when they are simultaneously
receiving conventional treatment – often because they are afraid the
doctor will be angry. That is potentially dangerous. We do our patients no
service if we stick our heads in the sand and pretend we are too
important, too superior and too pure to sully ourselves with the
unorthodox.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

16 February 2006
Michael Dixon
GP and honorary senior lecturer in integrated medicine, University of Exeter
Cullompton, Devon