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The wisdom of the people

A survey of the British public's faith in complementary and alternative medicine uncovers some remarkable results, says Professor Edzard Ernst.

In April 2011, YouGov ( published a poll of 2,530 men and women on the perceived value of CAM. Here are the percentages of people who felt confident that certain therapies are 'definitely effective':

• Osteopathy: 28%

• Chiropractic: about the same (exact figure was not provided)

• Acupuncture: 18%

• Reflexology: 8%

• Homeopathy: 7%

• Reiki: 4%

Such polls, I have always thought, are fairly nonsensical. Effective for what? Even if we disregard this (not so unimportant) detail, we must question whether the answers are reliable because they depend on how people are approached, how the sample is selected, how the question is formulated etc, etc.

Despite these caveats, the British people have voted in a way that I find remarkable. There is some evidence for osteopathy and chiropractic as a treatment for back pain and some for acupuncture to alleviate pain of knee osteoarthritis [1].

This evidence is not very strong so the respective percentage figures somehow seem to make sense. Overall, there is no good evidence from reliable clinical trials for reflexology, homeopathy or Reiki [1]. So these figures also make sense, particularly if we, consider that many people are ill-informed or believe anything or both.

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter

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