Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A dark day for Huddersfield

As someone brought up in one of the pennine towns, I know Huddersfield reasonably well and have always thought of it as, frankly, a bit of dump. So I was pleasantly surprised a couple of years ago when I accompanied one of my daughters on a visit as a potential student at the University of Huddersfield. Its compact campus is a really well designed, pleasant environment. And, I mean, it has Patrick Stewart as Chancellor!

However I am decidedly concerned about a press release I received from them. It tells us 'Following a pilot study in Huddersfield, researchers feel that Reiki, as a complementary therapy, should be available to cancer sufferers on the NHS.' Hmm.

Here's what I say about reiki (I can't see why it deserves a capital letter) in Science for Life:
Like acupuncture, reiki claims to use energies unknown and unde- tectable to science in its cures, but where acupuncture depends on the inner human energy of ch’i, reiki, which was devised in Japan in the early years of the 20th century, makes use of something more like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars – an external universal energy which is supposed to be channelled by the healer’s hands into the body of the person being treated.
     The only positive trials of reiki seem to be those where no controls were imposed – the treatment was not compared with a placebo, and so a natural sense of wellbeing resulted from a belief in its effectiveness. Although reiki can do no harm, there is always the danger if it is used instead of a functional treatment in the case of serious illness that the individual’s health will get worse as a result of not being properly treated.
     If you want a placebo-based treatment, over-the-counter home- opathy is a cheaper way to go.
 Now to be fair to Huddersfield, they aren't claiming reiki can cure cancer (this would be illegal), but they are saying that it can make sufferers feel better. Dr Serena McCluskey, who is a Senior Research Fellow in the University’s Centre for Applied Psychological and Health Research said 'Acupuncture and other techniques that were regarded as quite unorthodox are prescribed on the NHS, so we just thought that more research on Reiki was needed. We are not suggesting that we can establish scientific effectiveness, but we are adding to the body of evidence for the quality of life benefits it has for women with cancer.'

Hmm again. The research was done by D McCluskey and an-ex colleague Dr Maxine Stead, who is a 'Reiki master' and is 'now the owner of a holistic health spa in Huddersfield'. Triple hmm. No possibilities of vested interests here, then.

What did the research consist of? Over the course of a year, the researchers conducted detailed interviews with ten women who had received reiki therapy. They 'discovered benefits such as a release of emotional strain, “a clearing of the mind from cancer” and feelings of inner peace and relaxation.'

So it's a tiny trial using subjective interviews and they discovered, surprise, surprise, that when these patients received a lot of attention they felt better in themselves. But this is a classic placebo reaction. There was no attempt here to control the trial. No blinding. No attempt to compare with and without reiki. No suggestion that the same effects could be done without paying the fees of 'Reiki masters' by buying some ten-a-penny sugar pills. No consideration of the morality of placebo-as-treatment. (It may be justified, but it at least needs considering, and if it is to be done, it should be low cost and avoid encouraging misunderstanding of science.)

Frankly, this isn't science at all, it's effectively advertising for an alternative therapy. And the University of Huddersfield has seriously declined in my estimation.

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