In March, 2018, the Spanish Organisation of Medical Colleges created what they called “an observatory against pseudosciences, pseudotherapies, intrusion (the practice of a profession by an unauthorised person) and health sects”.
On the observatory website, they describe a number of alternative therapies and elaborate on the lack of scientific evidence showing any efficacy for them in the treatment of disease. The Spanish association also went as far as to report a list of 100 websites offering therapies considered dangerous to the general attorney with a request to have them banned.
The observatory “allows sharing and transmitting information which is contrasted, verified and validated on this type of pseudotherapies,” as detailed in a statement from the organisation. “These actions . . . emanate from a series of aims. One of them is the creation of an adequately informed and responsible critical mass with the ability to decide and respond, focused on prevention, health education and public health, as well as to protect the health and safety of patients and citizens.”
Does Ireland need a similar system?
More and more people are availing of alternative therapies, and while a lot of them are harmless, some may cause trouble, especially if administered by unqualified personnel. It can also be dangerous for patients to reject conventional treatment and replace it with alternative medicine alone.
However, patients may be convinced by anecdotal or unverified evidence supporting the efficacy of alternative treatments. We now have access to masses of information, but can we really tell the good from the dodgy?
Dr Robert O'Connor, head of research at the Irish Cancer Society, acknowledges that there may be an information overdose. "Health is big business and we are constantly bombarded with information on health matters," he says. "Much of it is inaccurate and misleading, particularly when it refers to cancer. There is huge fear around health matters and most of us feel that we are wrapped in a jungle of this information and don't know any more what we should be doing to best protect our health.
“While there is a clear need for better regulation around health discussions, since currently anyone can largely claim almost anything pertaining to health matters on many social media platforms, we also need to apply the basic rules of common sense from other parts of our life to health knowledge and action,” he says. “We wouldn’t fly in a plane driven by an architect with no flying experience, if we owned an expensive car we wouldn’t let someone we just met on the internet fiddle with it, but in believing or passing on unsubstantiated health myths and claims that is exactly what we are doing.”
Pseudoscience is so widespread in Ireland, an initial problem is figuring out what area to focus on
Paul O'Donoghue is a consultant clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society, an association that promotes critical thinking against pseudoscience. "The organisation of any group of professionals in concerned opposition to pseudoscience is to be applauded," he says. "The College of Physicians in Spain have taken an ethically proper and exemplary step."
He believes a similar approach should be taken in Ireland: “A parallel grouping in Ireland would be of immense value, particularly in providing accurate public information on health and in providing a forum for critical thinking and the constructive criticism of questionable health-related claims across the board.”
Colm Ryan is a member of Cork Skeptics, a group dedicated to promoting skepticism, science, and rational thinking. "I think a lot of approaches are needed to combat pseudoscience and pseudoscientific thinking," he says. "Pseudoscience is so widespread in Ireland, an initial problem is figuring out what area to focus on.
“I think there is value in having a group to monitor pseudoscientific activities and to help co-ordinate appropriate responses when necessary. Government and official responses to grassroots campaigns such as anti-HPV and anti-fluoride were inadequate, and I think we will continue to see more sophisticated campaigns in the future that will require an appropriate response.
“Longer term, greater awareness and better public education are needed, with more people ready to challenge unscientific thinking in the media and more resources available to combat misinformation.”
Mr Ryan also states that he would favour “a multi-disciplinary approach, that features robust legislation, enforcement, and public education”.
So if a similar office was created in Ireland, who should head it? “The Irish Skeptics Society would be very happy to be engaged with any such endeavour in Ireland,” says Mr O’Donoghue.
Mr Ryan believes that independent entities should coordinate the endeavour. "I think a model such as Sense About Science or The Good Thinking Society in the UK might work," he says. "These are independent organisations whose job it is to work with the public, government organisations, educational institutions, media and social media to combat pseudoscience and to highlight areas where action and legislation may be needed. A charity or statutory entity might work best in this respect."
There are government agencies in Ireland that currently provide information about alternative medicines and therapies. The Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) states that its role is "to protect and enhance public and animal health by regulating medicines, medical devices and other health products".
“We aim to continue to provide information on issues pertinent to authorised and unauthorised medicines and health products via our website and publications . . . It is illegal for a manufacturer or supplier to make medicinal claims about a medicine which is not an authorised medicinal product on the Irish market and similar rules apply throughout the EU.”
The Department of Health states that, while at present there is no statutory regulation of complementary therapists in Ireland, these therapists "are subject to a range of legislation and regulation, similar to other practitioners including consumer legislation, competition, contract and criminal law".
“The department makes available an information leaflet on complementary therapy to assist consumers in making an informed health choice.”