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Archive for July, 2012

Oxygen Is Good, Even When It’s Not There

Note: This article originally appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, 28(1), 48-50 & 55, January/February 2004. I’m recycling it now because I have been at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas instead of home at my computer writing new posts. It’s still timely: despite multiple debunkings and FTC actions, vitamin O is still for sale. Amazon has it for $4.80 an ounce. I’m no Mark Crislip; but I like to think this article borders on the Crislipian. Enjoy!

 

Oxygen is not just in the air; it’s on the shelves. It has been discovered by alternative medicine and is being sold in various forms in the health supplement marketplace. Back when I was an intern, we used to joke that there were four basic rules of medicine: (1) Air goes in and out. (2) Blood goes round and round. (3) Oxygen is good. (4) Bleeding always stops.

Alternative medicine has latched on to rule number three and won’t let go. The rationale, apparently, is that oxygen is required to support life; therefore more oxygen should make you more healthy. It’s not clear how this relates to alternative medicine’s advice on anti-oxidants, but that’s irrelevant. OXYGEN IS GOOD, so we should put it in our soft drinks and breathe it at oxygen bars. Take an oxygen tank home with you — you might feel better. The oxygen vendor might feel better, too. Dr Andrew Weil, the renowned health guru, tells patients with chronic fatigue to ask their doctors to prescribe oxygen for a home trial. Sure, why not? The money it costs will literally vanish “into thin air,” but who cares? OXYGEN IS GOOD.

Ignore the fact that you could find out whether you need oxygen by testing your blood oxygen saturation with that little-clip-thingy-they-stick-on-your-finger-in-the-emergency-room (aka pulse oximeter). Who cares if your blood is fully saturated with oxygen already? OXYGEN IS GOOD. If your oxygen saturation is a little less than 100 percent, there is no evidence that raising it will help with anything. If it is a lot less, and you do need oxygen, any competent doctor should be able to figure that out. But try an oxygen tank anyway: OXYGEN IS GOOD. Is this starting to sound like a mantra? It should. This is religious belief I am talking about, not science. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Humor

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Caption this: Dr. Gorski meets Dr. Whitaker

Earlier today, I gave you the blow-by-blow description of a debate that occurred on Thursday between Dr. Steve Novella and Dr. Julian Whitaker. After that debate, I got an opportunity to “discuss” one of Dr. Whitaker’s points, specifically a scientifically illiterate graph that he had constructed. Because Dave Patton was there doing photography of the event for Michael Shermer, I suggested that we do a picture, even though Dr. Whitaker was still on the podium. The picture came out…well, differently than I had expected. Looking at it again, though, I see that this is a perfect picture to have a little fun with, so I’m going to. Let’s have our SBM readers do something we haven’t done before on this blog. It’s a little thing called “Caption This.” In the comments, I’d like to see what sort of caption you think to be appropriate for this photo.

Have fun, and if I like any of them particularly well, I might add them to the picture and post them here and on Facebook.

Posted in: Humor, Vaccines

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Steve Novella vs. Julian Whitaker on vaccines at FreedomFest

Steve Novella vs. Julian Whitaker on vaccines at FreedomFest

I’ve just returned from TAM, along with Steve Novella and Harriet Hall. While there, we joined up with Rachael Dunlop to do what has become a yearly feature of TAM, the Science-Based Medicine workshop, as well as a panel discussion on one of our favorite subjects, “integrative” medicine. Between it all, I did the usual TAM thing, meeting up with old friends, taking in some talks, and, of course, spending the evenings imbibing more alcohol than I probably should have so that I could look and feel my best for our morning sessions, particularly given my difficulty adapting to the time change. One thing I did was completely unexpected, something I learned about the night before our workshop when I happened to run into Evan Bernstein. He informed me of something that our fearless leader Steve Novella was going to do the next day right after our workshop. In a nutshell, Evan told me that Steve was going to debate an antivaccinationist. Evan didn’t know any details other than that Michael Shermer had arranged it and that Steve had been tapped at the last minute. Evan didn’t even know who the antivaccinationist was going to be or what the event was. Naturally, I was intrigued.

So, the next morning I asked Steve about it. I turns out that the event was FreedomFest, a right-wing/Libertarian confab that happened to be going on at the same time as TAM up the road a piece on the Strip at Bally’s. Steve didn’t know who the antivaccinationist was going to be either, which made me marvel at him. I don’t know that I’d have the confidence agree to walk into the lion’s den with less than a day’s notice not even knowing who my opponent is. Steve was more than happy to invite me along. Clearly, this was was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. So we met up with Michael Shermer, and it was from him that I learned that Steve’s opponent was to be Dr. Julian Whitaker.

My eyes lit up.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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The Spirit of St. Louis Renault

Summer time is finally here in Oregon, and I will confess that I have spent little time on blogging.  The sun is out, my kids are out of school and home from college, and really, who wants to spend their time writing when you could be on the golf course or at the beach with the kids.  I say this as a mea culpa for what follows.

One of the saving graces in medicine is just how hard it is to harm people and how much trauma humans can withstand and survive. When I am on call for my partner I cover a Level 1 trauma ICU and the hallway leading to the unit is lined with photographs of some the trauma survivors. Over the years I have helped take care of many of these patients and I remember the extent of the injuries and the intensity of the care required to pull them through. Most of the survivors are young; it is the young who have the physiologic reserve to deal with the stress of injuries and their consequences.

Still, human physiology is amazingly resilient, especially of there are no co-morbid conditions to interfere with healing. With a little, and sometimes a lot, of support, I am constantly amazed at what people can sometimes survive.  Modern medicine can pull people through who would have certainlu died 20 years ago.

There are two way to hurt people: what you do and what you do not do, the harms of commission and omission. Harm can be obvious with surgery. Oops, sorry I left my watch in there.  I definitely do not have what it takes to be a surgeon. Or you can prescribe a medicine with a known side effect. Most SCAM’s, by doing nothing, are not prone to this sort of harm. Chiropractic and acupuncture are the notable exceptions, but even then it is hard to tear a vertebral artery or drop a lung unless the patient is extraordinarily unlucky. Of course one of the things you learn in medicine is that occasionally someone is extraordinarily unlucky and has a rare, but not unexpected, complication of an intervention, SCAM or otherwise. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Obamacare and CAM

Practitioners of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” currently enjoy a certain measure of government largesse in the form of state laws mandating coverage of their services by private health insurance plans. The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (often referred to as the Affordable Care Act, or “ACA,” and sometimes as “Obamacare”) has the potential of putting a significant dent in this forced coverage of pseudoscientific health care.

All states require private health insurers to cover certain health care services by law. These mandates can be in the form of requirements that specific health care services or treatments be covered, that certain providers be covered, or that certain populations be covered.

Mandates are ubiquitous, inconsistent among states and costly. One insurance industry trade group calculates that there are currently 2,262 separate state mandates. Some are supported by clear evidence of benefit, such as immunizations and mammograms. Others, unfortunately, require coverage of “CAM” services, such as acupuncture and chiropractic. (In fact, acupuncture is typically not covered by small group plans unless required by state mandate.) Whether beneficial or not, all agree that these mandates increase premium costs to the consumer, most estimated to be from less than one percent to five percent of premiums, depending on the mandate. Chiropractic coverage, for example, can vary from state to state, from limiting the insured to a specific number of visits per year all the way to requiring chiropractors to be covered on par with medical doctors.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Why Do They Do Studies Like This?

A recently published study claims to have shown that a proprietary mixture of velvet bean and Chlorophytum borivilianum improves sleep quality. The journal, Integrative Medicine Insights, is online, peer-reviewed, PubMed indexed, open-access, and it charges authors $1848.00 to publish their article. It advertises editorial decisions in 3 weeks and publication in 2 weeks after acceptance. I can see two reasons why authors might be willing to pay that much for publication: to speed the process of getting important research results out to the public, or because their research is poor quality and they know it would be rejected by other journals.

The quality of this study is unfortunately typical of much of the research on alternative medicine.

Description of Study

The full text is available for download here.  The title is “A Dietary Supplement Containing Chlorophytum Borivilianum and Velvet Bean Improves Sleep Quality in Men and Women.” They gave a proprietary supplement mixture to 18 young healthy subjects with self-reported impairment of sleep quality (defined as routine difficulty falling asleep, waking more than twice during the night, and awaking in the morning feeling tired) and had them fill out a questionnaire about sleep quality before and after the trial. They also measured heart rate, blood pressure, CBC, metabolic panel, and lipid panels.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements

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The future of cancer therapy?

I was contemplating writing a post along the same lines as Harriet’s post about evolutionary medicine last week, but then on Sunday morning I saw an article that piqued my interest. Sorry, Harriet, my response, if I get to it, might have to wait until next week, although we could always discuss the usefulness (versus the lack thereof) of evolutionary medicine over a beer or two at The Amazing Meeting in a few days. In the meantime, this week’s topic will revisit a topic near and dear to my heart, a topic that I tend to view (sort of) in a similar way as Harriet views evolutionary medicine, namely personalized medicine or the “individualization” of treatments. It’s a topic I’ve written about at least twice before and that Brennen McKenzie wrote about just last week. In essence, we both pointed out that when it comes to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” treatments for various conditions and diseases, what CAM practitioners claim to be able to do with respect to “individualized care” is nonsense based on fantasy. Science-based medicine already provides individualized care, but it’s individualized care based on science and clinical trials, not tooth fairy science.

Serendipitously, this point was driven home over the weekend in an article by Gina Kolata in the New York Times entitled In Treatment for Leukemia, Glimpses of the Future. While the story is basically one long anecdote that shows what can be done when new genomic technologies are applied to cancer, it also shows why we are a very long way from the true “individualization” of cancer care. It also turns out that I’ve discussed the same basic story before, but here I’ll try to discuss it in a bit more detail.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics

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Testing the “individualization” of CAM treatments

One of the common claims of alternative medicine practitioners is that they individualize their treatment while conventional medicine treats all patients the same. This is nonsense on several levels, but it is also a common excuse for why randomized clinical trials cannot be performed, or cannot be viewed as reliable evidence, in evaluating some alternative therapies. However, some trials have been done that attempt to account for this supposed individualization of therapy, and generally they have failed to show a benefit to the supposedly individualized approach. One of those, involving Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was recently discussed by Edzard Ernst, one of few, and most productive researchers in the CAM field applying an evidence-based approach:

Matthias Lechner, MD, Iva Steirer, MD, Benno Brinkhaus, MD, Yun Chen, CMD, Claudia Krist-Dungl, MS, Alexandra Koschier, MS, Martina Gantschacher, MA, Kurt Neumann, MS, and Andrea Zauner-Dungl, MD. Efficacy of Individualized Chinese Herbal Medication in Osteoarthrosis of Hip and Knee: A Double-Blind,Randomized-Controlled Clinical Study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2011;17(6): 539–547.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Dr. Oz and Green Coffee Beans – More Weight Loss Pseudoscience

I can’t keep up with Dr. Oz. Just when I thought the latest weight loss miracle was raspberry ketone, along comes another weight loss panacea. This time, it’s green coffee beans.

Eveyone knows Dr. Oz, now. Formerly a guest on Oprah, he’s got his own show which he’s built into what’s probably the biggest platform for health pseudoscience and medical quackery on daytime television. In addition to promoting homeopathy, he’s hosted supplement marketer Joe Mercola several times to promote unproven supplements. He has been called out before for  promoting ridiculous diet plans, and giving bad advice to diabetics. And don’t forget his failed attempt to actually demonstrate some science on his show, when he tested apple juice for arsenic which prompted a letter from the FDA about his methodology.  His extensive track record of terrible health advice is your caution not to accept anything he suggests at face value. So when the sign in front of my local pharmacy started advertising “Green coffee beans – as seen on Dr. Oz”, I tracked down the clip in question. The last time I saw Dr. Oz in action when when he had SBM’s own Steven Novella as a guest, where there was actually a exchange (albeit brief) about the scientific evidence for alternative medicine. Replace Dr. Novella with a naturopath, and you get this: (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy

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GSK Pays $3 Billion Fine

The following article is reposted from NeuroLogicaBlog. Happy Independence Day to all our American readers.

 

The pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline, has agreed to pay three billion dollars in fines to settle three charges of fraud brought by the FDA. This is the largest health fraud settlement in US history. What are the implications of this settlement for how the pharmaceutical industry is regulated in the US and for the role that “Big Pharma” allegedly plays in US health care?

The three fraud charges admitted to by GSK include promoting the off-label use of two anti-depressant drugs – Paxil and Wellbutrin. In the US drugs are approved for specific indications, and they can only be marketed for those indications. So-called off-label use of drugs, however, is very common. Off-label does not necessarily equate to bad medicine, or to lack of scientific evidence or rationale. Often there is solid basic science and clinical evidence to support a specific use of a drug that is not approved by the FDA. That simply means the manufacturer did not apply to the FDA for that indication, which could simply be because they did not feel they would recoup the millions of dollars they would need to spend to get approval for the additional indication. In other words, FDA approval for secondary indications is as much about marketing and finance as it is about the science.

Regardless of whether or not a specific use is evidence-based, however, the rules regulating pharmaceutical companies are very clear – they cannot market a drug for a non-approved use. Doing so breaks the law. GSK broke the law.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation

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