We can’t stress often enough that anecdotes are not reliable evidence; but on the other hand, patient stories can serve a valuable purpose in medical education. Hearing how a disease affected an individual patient is more powerful than reading a list of symptoms in a textbook and is far more likely to fix the disease in the student’s memory. When I think of Parkinson’s disease, the first thing that comes to mind is my first patient with Parkinson’s and how he responded to levodopa; and the first thing that may come to many people’s minds is Michael J. Fox. Of course, we must realize that they may not be typical examples; but putting a face to a diagnosis serves as a memory aid and a hook to hang the rest of our knowledge on.
In his new book, The Power of Patient Stories: Learning Moments in Medicine, Paul F. Griner, MD relates more than 50 stories that distill the wisdom he has developed over a 58-year career of practicing medicine and teaching young doctors. He describes them as “stories that provided a learning moment for me.” It’s interesting to see how much medicine has changed over his professional lifetime and yet how cases from the 50s and 60s are still highly relevant. Ethical dilemmas and lessons about medical practice come alive under his pen. Each story is followed by incisive questions and exercises that engage the reader and challenge him to think about the issues. (more…)
I realize that I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating. Homeopathy is the perfect quackery. The reason that homeopathy is so perfect as a form of quackery is because it is quite literally nothing. On second thought, I suppose that it’s not exactly nothing. It is, after all, water or whatever other diluent that homeopaths use (usually ethanol). However, thanks to some basic laws of physics and chemistry and a little thing known as Avogadro’s number, any homeopathic dilution greater than 12C (twelve serial 100-fold dilutions) is incredibly unlikely to contain even a single molecule of starting compound. That unlikeliness reaches truly astonishing levels as we reach the common homeopathic dilution of 30C, which is the equivalent of a 1060-fold dilution. Given that that little thing known as Avogadro’s number, which describes how many molecules of a compound are in a mole, is only approximately 6 x 1023, a 30C dilution is on the order of 1036- to 1037-fold higher than Avogadro’s number. Even assuming that a homeopath started with a mole of remedy before diluting (unlikely, given the high molecular weight of most of the organic compounds that can serve as homeopathic remedies), the odds that a single molecule could remain behind after the serial dilution and succussion process is infinitesimal. Appropriately enough, the “law” in homeopathy that states that diluting a remedy will make it stronger is the law of infinitesimals.
It is also the reason that homeopathy is nothing.
Homeopaths have known these facts for many decades. Anyone who is any sort of a scientist or has an understanding of science, when confronted with these simple, well-established physical laws, might—just might—start to rethink his belief in something that is so utterly implausible from a scientific standpoint. Indeed, homeopathy is about as close to impossible as anything I can imagine, because for it to “work” multiple well-established laws of physics and chemistry would have to be not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Yet, as Richard Dawkins famously put it, undeterred, homeopaths bravely paddle up the river of pseudoscience and invent explanations to “explain” how homeopathy could work, the most famous of which is the so-called “memory of water,” in which the water in the homeopathic remedy remembers all the good bits meant to heal but, as Tim Minchin so famously put it, somehow forgets all the poo that’s been in it. Homeopathy is truly magical thinking, which is why I love to use it as an illustrative example of quackery. Not only is it magical thinking, but because it is nothing but water, it’s a very useful educational example for placebo effects and the general types of fallacious arguments quacks and pseudoscientists make. Apparently it’s time for another one.
Science is the Concept by which
we measure our reality
I don’t believe in magic
I don’t believe in I-ching…
I just believe in science…and that reality.
John Lennon. Sort of.
As regular readers of the blog are aware, I am science/reality based. I think the physical and basic sciences provide an excellent understanding of reality at the level of human experience. Physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, evolution etc. provide a reliable and reproducible framework within which to understand health and disease. My pesky science may not know everything about reality, but day to day it works well.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet (1.5.166-7).”
Perhaps, but all the medical advances in my lifetime have been not yielded new science, just (amazing) variations and extensions of known processes. I sometimes think the blog should have been called reality based medicine, but science is the tool by which we understand reality, and while the tool is constant, our understanding of reality is prone to changing. An understanding of the rules of the universe combined with an awareness of the innumerable ways whereby we can fool ourselves into believing that those rules do not apply to us is part of what makes a science and reality based doctor.
We are often told of the need to keep an open mind, but I like to keep it open to reality. Not that I do not like fantasy and magic, it is a common category for my reading. I just finished Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, and while I love the world he has created, I would not want to apply the rules of that imaginary world to my patients. Well, one exception. As Logen Ninefingers would say, “You have to realistic about these things.” Fictional worlds should be limited to the practice of art, not the practice of medicine.
Oh, the irony of it all! Quackery continues its increasingly successful assault on the citadel of medicine, viz: quackademic medicine, integrative medicine, credulous medical journal articles, shruggies, medical society support for CAM provider licensing. Will that nemesis of medical doctors, plaintiffs personal injury attorneys, turn out to be the last defenders of science in a world of health care fraught with so-called alternative medicine?
Maybe not. But the thought did occur to me while reading the Final Judgment and Order entered in Gallucci v. Boiron, the class action accusing the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic products of consumer fraud.
So-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is largely philosophy-based medicine rather than science based. There are a few core concepts that are endlessly recycled in various forms, but it is mythology and culture, not grounded in the rigorous methods of science that allow us to tell the difference between our satisfying fantasies and hard reality. Sometimes proponents of such philosophies try to cloak their beliefs in the appearance of science, resulting in what we simply call pseudoscience.
Harriet Hall coined an excellent term to refer to such pseudoscience -” Tooth Fairy science.” In her metaphor, pseudoscientists sometimes act like scientists by describing the details and statistics of their claimed phenomenon (such as examining all the details of the Tooth Fairy phenomenon) without ever testing the reality of the phenomenon itself. The fundamental concept at the core of their belief is never challenged, or only superficially so, and they proceed prematurely from their faulty premise.
Another term that I find extremely apt is “Cargo Cult science,” a term coined by Richard Feynman. This is a reference to the cargo cults of New Guinea – the pre-industrial tribes were observed building straw mock-ups of control towers, planes, and runways in hopes that the planes they observed flying over head would deliver their cargo to them. In other words – the cargo cults mimicked the superficial appearance of an aviation infrastructure but had none of the real essence or function (because of lack of understanding). This is a perfect analogy to much of what passes for science within the world of CAM.
Isagenix is a wellness system sold by multilevel marketing. It consists of a suite of products to be used in various combinations for “nutritional cleansing,” detoxification, and supplementation to aid in weight loss, improve energy and performance, and support healthy aging. It allegedly burns fat while supporting lean muscle, maintains healthy cholesterol levels, supports telomeres, improves resistance to illness, reduces cravings, improves body composition, and slows the aging process. And makes millions for distributors who got on the bandwagon early and are high on the pyramid.
I have written about it before and have been roundly criticized by its proponents. It generated my all-time favorite insult: “Dr Harriet Hall is a refrigerator with a head.”
My biggest concern with Isagenix was that it had not been clinically tested. They claimed that clinical tests were in progress (funded by Isagenix). An e-mail correspondent recently told me I should take another look at Isagenix, since a clinical study had been completed. It had not yet been published, and I asked her to get back to me when it was. Ask and you shall receive (but you may be sorry!). She contacted me when the study by Kroeger et al. was published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism. The full study is available online and I urge readers to click on the link and look at Table 2, which I will be referring to later. The journal is peer-reviewed but, as will become painfully obvious, the peer reviewers did not do a competent job. It is an open-access online journal with a low impact factor. The authors had to pay to get their article published: it cost them $1805.
When we refer to “science-based medicine” (SBM), it is a very conscious choice to emphasize that good medicine should be based on a solid foundation of science. The name was coined to contrast the difference between the current evidence-based medicine (EBM) paradigm, which fetishizes randomized clinical trial evidence above all else and frequently ignores prior plausibility based on well-established basic science, and the SBM paradigm, which takes prior plausibility into account. The purpose of this post will not be to resurrect old discussions on these differences, but before I attend to the study at hand I bring this up to emphasize that progress in science-based medicine requires progress in science. That means all levels of biological (and even non-biological) basic science, which forms the foundation upon which translational science and clinical trials can be built. Without a robust pipeline of basic science progress upon which to base translational research and clinical trials, progress in SBM will slow and even grind to a halt.
That’s why, in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is so critical. The NIH funds large amounts of biomedical research each year, which means that what the NIH will and will not fund can’t help but have a profound effect shaping the pipeline of the basic and preclinical research that ultimately leads to new treatments and cures. Moreover, NIH funding has a profound effect on the careers of biomedical researchers and clinician-scientists, as having the “gold standard” NIH grant known as the R01 is viewed as a prerequisite for tenure and promotion in many universities and academic medical centers. Certainly this is the case for basic scientists; for clinician-scientists, having an R01 is certainly highly prestigious, but less of a career-killer if an investigator is unable to secure one. That’s why NIH funding levels and how hard (or easy) it is to secure an NIH grant, particularly an R01, are perennial obsessions among those of us in the biomedical research field. It can’t be otherwise, given the centrality of the NIH to research in the U.S.
Andrew Weil, MD, pops up quite frequently on SBM, most recently in this entry by Harriet Hall, so I will not spend much space introducing him. An excellent biography and critique of Dr. Weil was written by Arnold Relman, former Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. It is over a decade old, but contemporary to some of the events described in this post, and still quite relevant.
Suffice it to say that Dr. Weil is one of the most successful and well recognized popularizers of alternative medicine. He has authored or coauthored dozens of books. His website sells everything from baby pacifiers to vitamins to breakfast sausages, packaged bearing his name and/or visage. He is an altmed rockstar. He has been a key player in the branding of alternative medicine. In particular, been an advocate of “integration” of traditional and alternative medicine. He has created and exported residency training programs, and more recently proposed board certification in integrative medicine.
I recently read a book entitled On Being Certain: Believing you are right, even when you’re not, by Robert Burton, nicely-reviewed and recommended by Harriet Hall. In his book Dr. Burton excerpted an interview with Dr. Andrew Weil, pointing out Dr. Weil’s profound certainty about the effectiveness of a particular alternative treatment in spite of contradictory evidence. Dr. Hall also discussed this section of the book in her review. I found the excerpts fascinating and decided to delve more deeply into the interview. I also found another interview with Dr. Weil relevant to his ideas about evidence.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Ben Goldacre’s new book, Bad Pharma, an examination of the pharmaceutical industry, and more broadly, of the way new drugs are discovered, developed and brought to market. As I have noted before, despite the very different health systems that exist around the world, we all rely on private, for-profit, pharmaceutical companies to supply drug products and also to bring newer, better therapies to market. It’s great when there are lots of new drugs appearing, and they’re affordable for consumers and health systems. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Pipelines seem to be drying up, and the cost of new drugs is climbing. Manufacturers refer to the costs of drug development when explaining high drug prices: New drugs are expensive, we’re told, because developing drugs is a risky, costly, time consuming endeavor. The high prices for new treatments are the price of innovative new treatments, both now and in the future. Research and development (R&D) costs are used to argue against strategies that could reduce company profitability (and presumably, future R&D), be it hospitals refusing to pay high drug costs, or changing patent laws that will determine when a generic drug will be marketed.
The overall costs of R&D are not the focus in Goldacre’s book, receiving only a short mention in the afterword, where he refers to the estimate of £500 million to bring a drug to market as “mythical and overstated.” He’s not alone in his skepticism. There’s a fair number of papers and analyses that have attempted to come up with a “true” estimate, and some authors argue the industry does not describe the true costs accurately or transparently enough to allow for objective evaluations. Some develop models independently, based on publicly available data. All models, however, must incorporate a range of assumptions that can influence the output. Over a year ago I reviewed at a study by Light and Warburton, entitled Demythologizing the high costs of pharmaceutical research, which estimated R&D costs at a tiny $43.4 million per drug – not £500 million, or the $1 billion you may see quoted. Their estimates, however, were based on a sequence of highly implausible assumptions, meaning the “average” drug development costs are almost certainly higher in the real world. But how much higher isn’t clear. There have been at least eleven different studies published that estimate costs. Methods used range from direct data collection to aggregate industry estimates. Given the higher costs of new drugs, having an understanding of the drivers of development costs can help us understand just how efficiently this industry is performing. There are good reasons to be critical of the pharmaceutical industry. Are R&D costs one of them?
Next month is the 5 year anniversary of Science-Based Medicine. We have published 1575 articles so far, with 72,400 comments. We are getting about 475,000 views per month, and SBM has attracted the attention of the mainstream media, government agencies, peer-reviewed journals, and even television and movie producers. Over the last five years we have endeavored to be a valuable resource for anyone interested in the science of medicine, targeting our articles at both a professional and general audience simultaneously.
We are trying to engage with future and current health care professionals with articles about how to evaluate the medical literature, the pros and cons of various approaches to data, and the pitfalls of clinical decision making. We have also tried to serve a consumer protection function by targeting many false and misleading claims for health products. Further we have advocated strongly for effective regulation of health care products and practices to maintain a single, fair, and effective science-based standard of care across all health care.
It seems that we have met our initial goal of creating a successful blog promoting science-based medicine. But there is so much more to do. And we need your support.