Misleading claims in osteopathy: A systemic problem

Some osteopaths claim that they are able to treat a wide range of health conditions ranging from infantile colic to asthma to cerebral palsy and many others. However, there is a lack of evidence for the effectiveness of osteopathy for many of these conditions. There is clear guidance on the conditions that osteopaths may advertise to treat on the CAP website. However, many osteopaths breach these guidelines and continue to offer treatments for conditions outside the “allowed” list. Osteopaths who do this are misleading prospective patients and the general public. This could result in someone being misled into having osteopathic treatment when it was not suitable for them. In the best case this would simply be a waste of money but in some situations could put a patient’s health at serious risk.

In September 2015, further guidance was provided to all osteopaths by the General Osteopathic Council (regulatory body for osteopathy in the UK), the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committee of Advertising Practice. See this link for the guidance they provided to osteopaths: http://www.osteopathy.org.uk/news-and-resources/document-library/practice-guidance/gosc-asa-cap-letter-to-osteopaths/ In December 2016, the General Osteopathic Council and Advertising Standards Authority issued further guidance to osteopaths about the claims they can and cannot make about treatments for pregnant women, babies and children. More background to this can be found here.

The General Osteopathic Council took an important step forward in their Dec 16 / Jan 17 edition of “The Osteopath” by making it clear that all claims must be substantiated and this includes when talking to patients as well as advertising:

“Remember, you must be able to substantiate any claims that you make in your advertising – and you should adopt the same approach when discussing treatment options with patients.”

This statement from the General Osteopathic Council should help to protect patients from being misled by osteopaths not just in their advertising but also during appointments.

However, the General Osteopathic Council seem to be sending a somewhat mixed message to their registrants about the importance of complying with these guidelines. Within the very same magazine they have several adverts that offer training to osteopaths in the very things that the guidelines say they shouldn’t be treating. Here are just a couple of examples:

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And:

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When you follow the link for more details about this course it takes you here. Many of the items in the course content are in conflict with the guidance such as “Infant digestive disorders including infantile colic”, “Asthma”, “Otitis media” and “The adaptation of the infant to labour”.

The Institute of Osteopathy (the UK’s professional membership organisation for registered Osteopaths) is also not setting a good example of the need to comply with the guidelines. I have written about this previously here.

It’s going to be difficult for the osteopathic profession to clean up its act when:

  1. The regulator is continuing to allow adverts for training that breaches the guidelines in its own magazine.
  2. Their professional membership organisation is offering training in the conditions that osteopaths should not be treating.

Over the last 18 months the problems with osteopaths misleading patients and the public with their advertising has been repeatedly highlighted. The General Osteopathic Council has now made it clear that these guidelines also apply to actual treatments given to patients. This is an important step forward but the osteopathic profession has a long way to go to clean up its act. Misleading patients and the general public actually appears to be a systemic problem in the profession. The problem seems to be not just with osteopaths themselves but also with their professional organisation and even the regulator is not leading by example. By continuing to treat people with conditions for which there is no good quality evidence, osteopaths are putting their own businesses ahead of the needs of their patients.

In order to bring about a real improvement in the osteopathic profession a lot of changes need to be made, such as:

  1. Educational establishments should stop training osteopaths to treat conditions for which there is no good evidence. This includes, undergraduate and postgraduate training courses as well as specific CPD courses
  2. Osteopaths should stop advertising and treating people with conditions for which there isn’t strong evidence of treatment effectiveness
  3. The General Osteopathic Council should police all of this strongly and proactively to ensure that all training, advertising and treatments are compliant with the regulations.
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