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Archive for July, 2010

Terrible Anti-Vaccine Study, Terrible Reporting

One of my goals in writing for this blog is to educate the general public about how to evaluate a scientific study, specifically medical studies. New studies are being reported in the press all the time, and the analysis provided by your average journalist leaves much to be desired. Generally, they fail to put the study into context, often get the bottom line incorrect, and then some headline writer puts a sensationalistic bow on top.

In addition to mediocre science journalism we also face dedicated ideological groups who go out of their way to spin, distort, and mutilate the scientific literature all in one direction. The anti-vaccine community is a shining example of this – they can dismiss any study whose conclusions they do not like, while promoting any horrible worthless study as long as it casts suspicion on vaccines.

Yesterday on Age of Autism (the propaganda blog for Generation Rescue) Mark Blaxill gave us another example of this, presenting a terrible pilot study as if we could draw any conclusions from it. The study is yet another publication apparently squeezed out of the same data set that Laura Hewitson has been milking for several years now - a study involving macaque infants and vaccinations. In this study Hewitson claims a significant difference in brain maturation between vaccinated and unvaccinated macaque infants, by MRI and PET analysis. Blaxill presents the study without noting any of its crippling limitations, and the commenters predictably gush.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Bought and Sold: Who Should Pay for CME

There are two topics about which I am a crank. The first, as you might have guessed, is alternative medicine. The other is pharmaceutical reps. Drug companies are somewhat schizophrenic. They have amazing scientists who invent drugs that treat an astounding array of diseases. Then, they take these drugs and turn them over to marketing, to be sold with all the enthusiasm and truthiness of a late night infomercial.

In the spirit of openness, I will say that I have not talked to a drug rep in 20 years. As far as industry supported gifts and food, I have not taken a pen or eaten pizza from industry in almost 30 years, since I was a fourth year medical student. I have accepted one gift over the years. Years ago, when the Pfizer rep left, he sent me Fleets enema with a Unasyn sticker on it. I still have it in my office, unused. But you never know when it might come in handy.

Being an absolutist about industry gifts does have downsides. It is distracting to sit in an auditorium filled with the smell of pizza and not eat any; somehow the PB&J I bring with me doesn’t smell as sweet. Administration has received one letter complaining about me that was ostensibly from an employee, but curiously was printed from a windows folder that had the same name as the levofloxacin rep. Just a coincidence, I am sure.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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New CMS Chief Donald Berwick: a Trojan Horse for Quackery?

NB: I posted this on Health Care Renewal a couple of days ago, figuring that Dr. Gorski’s post would suffice for the SBM readership (he and I had discussed the topic while at TAM8 last week). But Managing Editor Gorski has asked me to repost it here, which I’m happy to do. I am especially pleased to demonstrate that I am capable of writing a shorter post than is Dr. Gorski. ;-)

On July 7, President Obama appointed Dr. Donald Berwick as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Dr. Berwick, a pediatrician, is well known as the CEO of the non-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), which “exists to close the enormous gap between the health care we have and the health care we should have — a gap so large in the US that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2001 called it a ‘quality chasm’.” Dr. Berwick was one of the authors of that IOM report. His IHI has been a major player in the patient safety movement, most notably with its “100,000 Lives Campaign” and, more recently, its “5 Million Lives Campaign.”

Berwick’s CMS gig is a “recess appointment”: it was made during the Senate’s July 4th recess period, without a formal confirmation hearing—although such a hearing must take place before the end of this Senate term, if he is to remain in the position. A recent story suggested that Obama had made the recess appointment in order to avoid a reprise of “last year’s divisive health care debate.” The president had originally nominated Berwick for the position in April, and Republicans have opposed “Berwick’s views on rationing of care,” claiming that he “would deny needed care based on cost.”

A “Patient-Centered Extremist”

If there is a problem with the appointment, it is likely to be roughly the opposite of what Republicans might suppose: Dr. Berwick is a self-described “Patient-Centered Extremist.” He favors letting patients have the last word in decisions about their care even if that means, for example, choosing to have unnecessary and expensive hi-tech studies. In an article for Health Affairs published about a year ago, he explicitly argued against the “professionally dominant view of quality of health care”:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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HuffPo blogger claims skin cancer is conspiracy

I was a bit torn when trying to figure out how to approach this piece.  A reader emailed me about an article in the Huffington Post, and there is so much wrong with it that I felt overwhelmed.  My solution is to focus on a few of the problems that can help illuminate broader points.

There is a small but vocal movement of people who refuse to believe that skin cancer caused by sunlight is a significant health risk.  These people tend to also believe that the risk is being purposely hyped by others, and that our current approach to skin cancer prevention is causing an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. Leaving aside the seemingly insane denialism regarding sunlight and cancer, there are two broad problems with this article.  The first is pretty bad.

With the summer months upon us I wanted to find out firsthand what exactly the mantra is that dermatologists are telling patients. So I went undercover to several San Francisco dermatologists in order to see if there is legitimate concern about the sun-scare media hype. Are these doctors being sensible or going overboard when it comes to advice on sunscreen use and skin cancer prevention? Is the sky falling with dangerous UV rays or are we being induced into a media panic?

He goes on to give links to recorded conversations, and prints out partial transcripts.  He does not specify whether or not he received permission to record these conversations, as required by California law.  Whether or not the law requires it, the writer should have disclosed to his readers whether or not he had received permission.  This information is important in interpreting the conversations he reports to us.

The next problem is broader, and deals with physicians’ willingness to lie on behalf of patients.  The author’s presumably-clandestine recordings of his deceptive visits to dermatologists (catching my breath—this is striking and requires a digression.  The act of deceiving these doctors is not only unethical, but can influence the outcome of the visit.  Doctors make the assumption that most patients are interacting with them out of good faith, and are not intentionally deceiving them.) (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Reliability of Health Information on the Web

Last week at TAM8 some SBM colleagues (David Gorski, Kimball Atwood, Harriet Hall, Rachel Dunlop) and I gave two workshops on how to find reliable health information on the web. As part of my research for this talk I came across a recent and interesting study that I would like to expand upon further – Quality and Content of Internet-Based Information for Ten Common Orthopaedic Sports Medicine Diagnoses.

The fact that the article focuses on orthopedic diagnoses is probably not relevant to the point of the article itself, which was to assess the accuracy of health information on the web. They looked at 10 orthopedic diagnoses and searched on them using Google and Yahoo, and then chose the top results. They ultimately evaluated 154 different sites with multiple reviewers for quality of content and also for their HON rating.

For background, the HON rating comes from an independent organization, the Heath on the Net Foundation, that rates health care sites on a number of criteria. These include assessment of how authoritative the sources are, the level of transparency, and if opinions expressed are justified with evidence and references. While generally reasonable, the HON assessment does not necessarily involve a thorough assessment of the quality of the science on a given website, and many sites with what I would consider dubious information have earned the HON seal of approval.

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Posted in: Science and the Media

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Life Extension: Science or Pipe Dream?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to prolong our lives and to keep us healthy right up to the end? Ponce de León never found that Fountain of Youth, but science is still looking. What are the chances science will succeed? How’s it doing so far?

In his new book The Youth Pill: Scientists at the Brink of an Anti-Aging Revolution, David Stipp tries to answer those questions. From the title of the book, I expected hype about resveratrol or some other miracle pill; but instead it is a nuanced, levelheaded, entertaining, informative account of the history and current state of longevity research. It makes that research come alive by telling stories about the people involved, the failures and setbacks, and the agonizingly slow process of teasing out the truth with a series of experiments that often seem to contradict each other.

Anti-aging can mean several things. Extending the average lifespan is not the same as extending the maximum life span. Extending lifespan is not the same as preventing the degenerative changes characteristic of aging. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals

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Dr. Donald Berwick and “patient-centered” medicine: Letting the woo into the new health care law?

There’s been a bit of buzz in the health blogs over President Obama’s decision last week to use the mechanism of a recess appointment to be the director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Recess appointments, for those who may not be aware, allow a President to put a nominee in place when Congress is in recess in order to have him in place without the messy process of having him approved by the Senate. True, the Senate still has to approve a recess appointment by the end of its term, or the seat goes vacant again, but it’s an excellent way to avoid having nasty confirmation fights during election years. Of course, both parties do it, and the reaction of pundits, bloggers, and politicians tend to fall strictly along partisan lines. If you support the President, then a recess appointment is a way to get around the obstructionism of the other party. If you don’t support the President, it’s a horrific abuse of Presidential power. And so it goes. Either way, I don’t really care much about the politics of how such officials are appointed so much as who is being appointed.

The man who was appointed last week to head CMS is Donald Berwick, M.D., CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. His being placed in charge of CMS will likely have profound consequences not just for how the recent health care/insurance reform law is implemented but for how the government applies science-based medicine to the administration of the this massive bill. Most of the criticism of his views that I’ve seen thus far comes from conservatives, who do not like Berwick’s apparent penchant for health care systems like the British NHS. Ironically, it’s views held by Berwick that will likely come into direct conflict with his mandate to hold down costs that are the problem with Dr. Berwick, at least to me. It is in these views where there is much that is admirable. Unfortunately, I also fear that there is much about Berwick’s views that are very friendly to the possibility of allowing the infiltration of woo into the U.S. health care system as well, and these fears begin with what Berwick is most known for, a term he calls “patient empowerment.”

What a grand word! After all, who doesn’t want to be “empowered”? Certainly not me. Perhaps that’s the reason why it’s become the new buzzword in a movement known as “patient-centered” care. Old fart that I am, when I first encountered the term I was a bit puzzled by exactly what “patient empowerment” means. After all, I’ve always thought I have been practicing patient-centered care, ever since my first days in medical school. Apparently these days it means something different, at least if this article from about a year ago in the New York Times is any indication. It’s an interview with Dr. Donald Berwick, who advocates what he himself calls a “radical” patient-centered care, having at the time recently published an article in Health Affairs entitled What ‘Patient-Centered’ Should Mean: Confessions Of An Extremist. It was unclear to me then and it’s unclear to me now whether Berwick was being sarcastic or flippant in his characterization of himself as an “extremist.”
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Natural is not innocuous: the case of Angel’s Trumpet and tropane alkaloid intoxication

With this post, I’m happy to return to Science-Based Medicine on a regular basis, at least monthly and perhaps more depending upon how often commentary is required on natural products, whether they be herbal medicines or single-agent pharmaceuticals derived from natural sources. Next week, I’ll be attending the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Pharmacognosy being held jointly with the Phytochemical Society of North America in St. Petersburg, Florida. I hope to bring back the latest on novel natural products in preclinical development.

But today, I bring recent news that revisits a timeworn folly of the young (and some older folks): recreational use of toxic plants for the purpose of hallucination.

Toxicity reports are re-emerging in southern California this week after a dozen hospitalizations of kids using teas made from a fragrant flowering plant called Angel’s Trumpet. The tea is used to produce hallucinations, but they can progress to extremely unpleasant experiences. Moreover, Angel’s Trumpet can be deadly, accelerating the heart rate and causing fatal cardiac rhythmic disturbances and bronchoconstriction that can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive individuals.

220px-Atropine.svg.pngAngel’s Trumpet is one of a series of plants in the Brugmansia genus that make a variety of muscarinic cholinergic antagonists such as atropine (dl-hyoscyamine, pictured to the right) and scopolamine (l-hyoscine). These compounds are also known chemically as tropane alkaloids or belladonna alkaloids, the latter derived from their classical isolation from Atropa belladonna. The belladonna name derives from the use of eye drops made from the plants that prevent constriction of the pupils (mydriasis), back when the size of a woman’s pupils was a sign of beauty and arousal.

The tropane alkaloids are ubiquitous in plants and fungi and act as classic hallucinogens when used in high doses. Their legend goes back to witches brews and beyond. A wonderfully colorful history of tropane alkaloids by Robert S. Holzman of Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School was offered in this free 1998 paper in the journal, Anesthesiology (1998; 89:241-249).

However, the aftermath of Angel’s Trumpet use is far from colorful. In cases like these, I like to turn to the Erowid site, a respected, user-supported site that offers non-judgmental information on plant-derived and synthetic psychoactive agents. The Erowid Experience Vault has several descriptions of the use of Angel’s Trumpet but this one is the most detailed and representative of the downsides of this plant. (Note that the colloquial term for Angel’s Trumpet in Australia is sometimes “Tree Datura,” although Brugmansia is a closely-related but distinct genus from Datura within the Solanaceae family.)

I also came across a poorly-documented 2003 news article cited a German teenager cutting off his penis and tongue with garden shears after using Angel’s Trumpet.

While I’m NOT a physician, emergency personnel stumbling upon this post would do well to note that physostigmine or pilocarpine are typical antidotes for anticholinergic poisonings with Angel’s Trumpet, Atropa, Datura, and other similar plants that cause dilated pupils with loss of accommodation, xerostomia (dry mouth), and tachycardia. Click on this paragraph to access the Medscape poisoning article with more details on when and where specific treatments should be employed.

From the eMedicine article linked to in the above paragraph:

Remember common signs and symptoms with the mnemonic, “red as a beet, dry as a bone, blind as a bat, mad as a hatter, and hot as a hare.” The mnemonic refers to the symptoms of flushing, dry skin and mucous membranes, mydriasis with loss of accommodation, altered mental status (AMS), and fever, respectively.

I encourage all clinicians to be vigilant about anticholinergic poisonings in the weeks to come. In some cases in the past, I have found that reports such as these from southern California will often give rise to attempts to use the hallucinatory plant elsewhere despite the risks detailed.

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Sunscreen in a Pill?

Starr_050107-2831_Phlebodium_aureum

I’ve previously described the consequences of acute and chronic sun exposure, and the rationale for topical sunscreen products. But wouldn’t it be easier to just take a pill that can boost our skin’s resistance to to the harmful effects of the sun? Is it possible to get all the benefits of sunscreen without the bother of creams, or even clothing? (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Acupuncture and Modern Bloodletting

Last year Ben Kavoussi published an interesting article on SBM called Astrology with Needles in which he purported a historical connection between acupuncture and bloodletting. I had previously thought that bloodletting was a uniquely Western cultural invention – part of Galenic medicine involving the balancing of the four humors, one of which being blood. (In the West bloodletting faded away with the advent of science-based medicine in the 19th century.) I was intrigued by this connection and have since been doing my own reading on the topic. It turns out that bloodletting was common throughout ancient cultures and not unique to the west.

In fact acupuncture was originally a form of bloodletting – the “needles” were really lances and the acupuncture points locations over veins to be opened. Chi, or the Chinese concept of the life force, was believed to be partly in the blood, and blood letting could be used to free the flow of chi. This was closely related to the Galenic concept of using bloodletting to free the flow of static blood in the tissue.

For example, in the ancient medical text of Suwen, we find:

When heaven is warm and when the sun is bright,
then the blood in man is rich in liquid
and the protective qi is at the surface
Hence the blood can be drained easily, and the qi can be made to move on easily…

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