Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:

Reviews TV

Alternative Medicine

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 26 January 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:241

Rapid Response:

Spiritual healing undermines rationality

I agree with Prof. John S. Garrow that the impression given by Dr.
Michael Dixon during the programme on spiritual healing (BBC2 “Alternative
Medicine, The Evidence”) was most clearly one of promotion of this
treatment. This seemed remarkable to me, not least because Dr. Dixon is
the Chairman of the largest UK organisation of general practice, the NHS
Alliance. Before saying anything on camera about any treatment (orthodox
or unorthodox) would one not have expected a responsible chairman to
inform himself on the best evidence for or against this therapy? Dr. Dixon
spoke on the basis of his (rather flimsy) trial of 10 years ago. Should he
not have first studied the best evidence on this subject, particularly as
most of it does not confirm the results of his own trial e.g. 1? Dr. Dixon
insists that his study was “one of the first controlled trials”; not true:
at least 11 properly randomized studies were published before 1988!

Dr. Dixon also reassures us that none of his patients ever
experienced adverse effects. But spiritual healing is likely to cause
serious, unrecognized harm 2: Getting persuaded (some might use the term
“brain washed”) of (non-existing)mystical, divine or paranormal healing
“energy” is likely to undermine rationality on a grand scale leading, for
instance, to the acceptance of creationism or worse.

As the BBC’s advisor for this programme, I can assure Dr. Dixon that
he is also mistaken when stating it was all about the placebo effect; it
was very clearly and specifically about healing. And a final point: if we
want patients to profit from placebo effects, as Dr. Dixon and Prof Kathy
Sykes (the presenter of the programme) seem to advocate, we should
remember that even effective treatments can come with the “free bonus” of
a placebo response. In other words, we don’t need to jeopardize our
rationality with spiritual healing for maximizing placebo effects.

Reference List

1. Ernst E. Distant healing – an "update" of a systematic review.
Wien Klin Wochenschr 2003;115:241-5.

2. Ernst E. Complementary treatment: who cares how it works, as long
as it does? Lancet Oncol 2005;6:131-2.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

18 February 2006
Edzard Ernst
Professor of Complementary Medicine
Peninsula Medical School, 25 Victoria Park Rd, Exeter, EX2 4NT