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Archive for September, 2013

Obamacare, the Oregon Experiment, and Medicaid

Tomorrow, as mandated by the Patient Protection and the Affordable Care Act (PPACA, often called just the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, or “Obamacare”), the government-maintained health insurance exchanges will open for business (that is, assuming the likely government shutdown doesn’t stop them temporarily). We here at SBM have written about the ACA quite a few times, but I would like to write about it in perhaps an entirely different context than you’re used to now that the biggest change mandated by the law is here. Just to see the contrast, I’ll mention that Jann Bellamy has written about the ACA in the context of how provisions have been inserted by promoters of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) could potentially provide an “in” for requiring reimbursement of CAM practitioners for their services by insurance plans sold through the exchanges or even how CAM practitioners might promote themselves as primary care providers (PCPs) under Obamacare, as did Matt Roman. I myself warned about legislative meddling that might permit funding of religion-based health care in the exchanges, and Kimball Atwood sounded early warnings about insertion of the provisions that Jann warned about. Instead, view this discussion as a follow-up to a post I did almost a year ago that used a statement by Mitt Romney during the height of the Presidential campaign as a jumping off point to look at the relationship between health insurance status and mortality. While we at SBM try to remain more or less apolitical, in some cases (licensing of naturopaths, for example) it is not possible to disentangle science from politics, and we have to dive in. Also, politics is the art of the possible; so, policy-wise, what is best as determined by science might well not be what is possible politically.

The reason I wanted to revisit this topic is because of a political battle that went on for quite some time over the last several months to expand Medicaid in Michigan according to the dictates of the ACA. The reason that this battle is occurring in many states is because when the Supreme Court ruled last year that the individual mandate requiring that citizens have health insurance was Constitutional, one provision that it ruled unconstitutional was the mandatory expansion of Medicaid in states participating in the Medicaid program to cover all people under 65 up to 133% of the federal poverty level. States thus had to decide whether or not they would accept the Medicaid expansion. In our state, Governor Rick Snyder supported the expansion. Even though he is Republican, he is also a businessman and realized that it was a good deal, with the federal government covering 100% of the cost for the first three years and then phase down to 90% of the cost in 2020. The bill to expand Medicaid managed to pass the House of Representatives, but then it stalled in the Senate. Unfortunately—and this is what got me involved—my state Senator Patrick Colbeck led the opposition to the Medicaid expansion in the Senate, much to my chagrin and disappointment. His argument, which is being repeated elsewhere in the blogosphere, is that Medicaid is worthless and doesn’t improve health outcomes. Instead, he endorsed an alternative that (or so he claimed) places Medicaid-eligible patients into in essence low cost, high deductible concierge practices, with health savings accounts. This was a plan promoted by practices like BlueSky Health. Ultimately Mr. Colbeck lost, and Medicaid was expanded in Michigan in a plan that was characterized by John Z. Ayanian in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine as “a pragmatic pathway to link Republican and Democratic priorities for health care.”

However, the whole kerfuffle got me to thinking. In my post a year ago, I basically asked what the evidence was that access to health insurance improves health outcomes, but I didn’t really stratify the question into kinds of health insurance. Rather, I just looked at being uninsured versus having health insurance. After my little Facebook encounter with one of my elected representatives, I wondered what, exactly, was the state of evidence. So I decided to do this post. In the U.S., currently we have in essence three kinds of health insurance, broadly speaking: private insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. Medicare, for those of our readers from other countries, is a plan that covers the medical care of people 65 and over and those receiving Social Security disability benefits. It is funded through payroll taxes and directly paid for by the federal government. Medicaid, in contrast, is a plan designed for low income people who fall below certain income levels. Also in contrast, it is jointly funded by the states and the federal government with each participating state administering the plan and having wide leeway to decide eligibility requirements within the limits of federal regulations that determine the minimal standards necessary for states to receive matching funds. Indeed, the loss of this leeway to determine the income level at which a person is eligible for Medicaid is one of the reasons the provision for Medicaid expansion was part of the Supreme Court challenge to the ACA. These days, most Medicaid plans hire private health maintenance organizations (HMOs) to provide insurance. Finally, what needs to be understood is that, compared to private insurance, Medicare reimbursement rates tend to be lower and Medicaid reimbursement rates are lower still, which is part of the reason why a lot of doctors don’t accept Medicaid. Increases in reimbursement under the ACA might well help this situation. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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You Get What You Pay For

I will be giving a free talk entitled Acupuncture: A Science-Based Evaluation of a Popular SCAM to the Bay Area Skeptics on Wednesday, October 2 at 7:30 pm.

Information at the Bay Area Skeptics site on how to get to the La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley.

A wonderful time will be had by all. Well, those who drink first.

Posted in: Announcements

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Separating Fact From Fiction in the Not-So-Normal Newborn Nursery: Pacifiers and Nipple Confusion

My first “real world” employment after completing residency was as a full-time newborn hospitalist in Houston. After spending 3 years in Space City, often rounding on as many as 30 newborn infants in the Level 1 and Level 2 units each day at the county hospital, I feel as if I’ve probably about seen it all when it comes to the nursery. I then left the babies behind while working as a pediatric hospitalist in Baton Rouge for four years, but now I’m back in the newborn business up here in Boston. While there have certainly been a few changes since 2009, many things remain exactly the same.

I help take care of a very vulnerable population in my current position: parents. Parents, in particular the young and first time variety, often approach parenting with a blank slate. Sure there is frequently a grandparent or four there for assistance, but the healthcare professionals working in the nursery are looked to for vital knowledge about how to care for the new arrival. Even some of the more experienced parents will still have questions, and most respect and follow the advice given during those first few days while at the hospital. These questions most commonly focus on topics such as feeding, vaccinations and vitamin supplementation, but I am regularly asked about a variety of routine parenting skills such as swaddling, and even baby “gear” like Angel monitors.

Parents love their children and want what is best for them, and they frequently express fear and anxiety over some of these topics. Love and fear are two powerful factors in the acceptance of pseudoscience and bad advice, which is why parents are set up to be fooled. Over the next few posts, I plan to cover some examples of newborn issues known to cause excessive parental anxiety and that sometimes lead to poor decisions, in large part because of bad information received from people who should know better.

First up is a concept that is well-known in the nursery, and strikes fear in the hearts of lactation consultants all over the world. I’m talking about nipple confusion. This is a concept that may seem silly to those unfamiliar with the world of parenting, but it is something that newborn doctors deal with daily and there is a great deal of controversy. Not “vaccines and autism” controversy unfortunately, but if after reading this post you find yourself feeling let down because I didn’t start with something sexier, take solace in the fact that winter is coming. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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A closer look at Dr. Oz’s 15 Superfoods

I’m sure I’m not the only health professional that bites their tongue whenever a patient starts a question with “I heard on Dr. Oz that…” More often than not, I have expectations to realign, and some assumptions to correct. I could easily devote all my posts to simply correcting  information presented on the Dr. Oz show. But given I’m blogging here biweekly, and Dr. Oz has a daily television show, I’ll never be able to catch up. So while my first choice in topics isn’t to add a post to our extensive Dr. Oz archives, I often end up, like many other health professionals, needing to respond to his shows shortly after they air.

Should you happen to be someone that has never seen the Dr. Oz show, Dr. Mehmet Oz is an Oprah protégé who has gone on to build a health media empire that is possibly the biggest vehicle for health pseudoscience and medical quackery on television. Whether it’s promoting homeopathy, recommending unproven supplements, or advocating ridiculous diet plans, there seems to be no health subject too dubious to endorse. Oz has established an impressive track record of providing highly questionable health advice. A few months ago I examined his absurd endorsement of green coffee beans, followed by his dubious “clinical trial” of green coffee beans that likely didn’t meet minimal research ethics standards. Then there was the weight loss “miracle” (his words), red palm oil, which followed the same episodic formula of breathless hyperbole backed by questionable evidence. One of the meta-trends of the Dr. Oz show are weight loss secrets – typically gimmicky interventions, supplements and therapies that he promotes as panaceas for obesity. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Candida and Fake Illnesses

Savvy consumers have learned over the years that the primary goal of marketing is to create demand for a product or service. This has risen to the point of inventing problems that do not really exist just to sell a product that addresses the fake problem. Who knew that my social status could be destroyed by spotty glassware.

Better yet, if you can make people worry about a nonexistent problem, something that they were not previously aware of and don’t understand, they might buy your solution just to relieve their worry.

This type of “artificial demand” marketing can be very insidious when it occurs with medical products and services. The pharmaceutical industry has been accused of generating artificial demand for some of their drugs. For example, osteopenia is a relative decrease in bone density, but not enough to qualify for osteoporosis. Osteopenia is not really a disease, or even necessarily a mild version of osteoporosis, although it is a risk factor. Merck, however, was happy to broaden the market for its drug for osteoporosis and argue that patients with osteopenia should be treated also, even though the evidence really did not support this.

Sometimes the accusations are flat-out wrong. GSK has been accused of inventing restless leg syndrome (RLS) to sell a failed Parkinson’s drug. In fact the drugs used for RLS are successful Parkinson’s drugs. Further, I found references to RLS in neurology texts going back over 50 years, and there were even older references although not using the same name.

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Posted in: General

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Answering Our Critics, Part 1 of 2

Some people don’t like what we have to say on Science-Based Medicine. Some attack specific points while others attack our whole approach. Every mention of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) elicits protests in the Comments section from “true believer” users and practitioners of CAM. Every mention of a treatment that has been disproven or has not been properly tested elicits testimonials from people who claim to have experienced miraculous benefits from that treatment. In previous articles I have compiled the criticisms of what I wrote about Protandim and Isagenix. It’s instructive to read through them. We welcome rational and substantive criticism, but most of these comments are neither.

Our critics keep bringing up the same old memes, and it occurred to me that rather than try to answer them each time, it might be useful to list those criticisms and answer them here. In future, when the same points are raised, we could save time and effort by linking to this page and citing the reference number. I know this list is not comprehensive, and I hope our readers will point out anything I’ve omitted. Here are some of the criticisms we keep hearing:

1. Big Pharma is paying you to promote their products and discredit CAM.

No it isn’t. We are not Pharma shills. We are not paid anything for writing this blog. We do not get money from pharmaceutical companies. We do not accept gifts from drug companies. We do not get kickbacks for prescribing certain drugs. We have no incentive to favor drugs over other treatments. Incidentally, critics who prefer natural remedies to pharmaceuticals should note that many CAM diet supplements are sold by subsidiaries of Big Pharma. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Obesity, cancer, and chemotherapy

In medicine, particularly oncology, it’s often the little things that matter. Sometimes, however, the “little things” aren’t actually little; they just seem that way. I was reminded of this by a story that was circulating late last week in the national media, often under titles like “Obese cancer patients often shorted on chemo doses”, ”Are obese people with cancer getting chemotherapy doses too small for them?”, and “Obese Cancer Patients Not Getting Full Doses of Chemotherapy Drugs”. It’s also interesting to me because it stands in marked contrast to something I’ve written about a lot on this blog: The overtreatment of cancer. In this case, this story is about the undertreatment of cancer in patients who are obese, and it’s a problem that has definite adverse effects on an obese person’s odds of surviving cancer.

I’ve been aware of this issue for some time and had been thinking of blogging about it for at least three years. The reason is that the oncologist who is best known for sounding the alarm on this issue is Jennifer Griggs at the University of Michigan and, being local and all, I’ve seen her speak on the topic several times at local breast cancer conferences. Now that I work with a statewide breast cancer care quality improvement initiative, I’m becoming more aware of her work. Indeed, I was rather puzzled why this issue bubbled up enough to be reported widely on the national news last week when the Nature Clinical Oncology paper by Gary H. Lyman and Alex Sparreboom that drew attention to the issue was published in August, and the original American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) guidelines were published last year. Whatever the reason this issue has been getting more attention, it’s a good thing.
(more…)

Posted in: Cancer

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What are words for?

Do you hear me

Do you care

Do you hear me

Do you care

My lips are moving and the sound’s coming out

The words are audible but I have my doubts

That you realize what has been said

You look at me as if you’re in a daze

It’s like the feeling at the end of the page

When you realize you don’t know what you just read

What are words for when no one listens anymore

What are words for when no one listens

What are words for when no one listens it’s no use talking at all

I might as well go up and talk to a wall

‘Cause all the words are having no effect at all

Missing Persons on blogging. Or so I thought. I was surprised to learn the song was written by the brothers Gibb.

Words are important. I try and choose my words carefully when writing so that they accurately reflect not only my thoughts but reality. When I speak, not so much. My frontal lobe filters often fail if I think might I might get a laugh.

I tell housestaff, precision of writing reflects precision of thought. It is one of the reasons I write; the act of writing forces some coherence into what can be muddled and inchoate thoughts. Even though I have residents who write notes, I always write my own. Often I do not make a final decision as to a plan until I put pen to paper, or electrons to screen. Writing crystallizes thought.

Not, evidently, for everyone, as 10 Facts About the Flu Vaccine and the Flu nicely demonstrates. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Vaccines

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CAM Docket: Functional Endocrinology Update

Sometimes the media gets it right.

From time to time, SBM has reported on the disheartening credulity of reporters when they cover so-called “alternative” medicine. Denver’s Channel 7, an ABC affiliate, is a happy exception to the rule. Reporter Theresa Marchetta first broke the story of Brandon and Heather Credeur, chiropractors practicing “Functional Endocrinology.” And for three years Marchetta, with the assistance of reporter Phil Tenser, followed up, interviewing hundreds of patients who lost thousands of dollars paid to the Functional Endocrinology Center of Colorado for treatment of their diabetes and other endocrine disorders. They’ve reported regularly as the Credeurs legal travails progressed through various judicial and administrative forums. Channel 7 and its reporters deserve substantial credit for pursing this story. The Credeurs might have escaped further censure without their persistence.

Another recurring frustration at SBM is medicine’s embrace of alternative medicine, expressed repeatedly at SBM in posts on quackademic medicine and the branding device known as integrative medicine. We’ve also lamented the seeming complicity of the state medical societies in allowing quackery to be legalized in the form of complementary and alternative medicine provider practice acts.

But sometimes medicine gets it right.

The Colorado Medical Board has somewhat redeemed itself in ordering Brandon and Health Credeur to cease and desist the unlicensed practice of medicine. That’s right. A medical board has finally put its collective foot down and pushed back against chiropractic’s increasingly aggressive push to practice medicine.

And sometimes SBM appears to be making inroads into the hostile incursion of alternative medicine.

I recently discovered that if you google “functional endocrinology”, first up on the list is CAM Docket: Functional Endocrinology, the very post updated today. Admittedly, it appears at the head of a depressingly long list of chiropractic websites advertising the practice, but at least we get a first crack at anyone who might be considering paying thousands of dollars and wasting time, and perhaps their health, on this useless nonsense.

A trifecta in the war on quackery! Revel in this victory, supporters of science-based medicine, for it is small and the victory may be fleeting. Let’s see how the battle is going. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements

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Quantum Neurology

As the resident neurologist on SBM, my ears always prick up when I come across a new neurology-based scam, and my colleagues often send such items my way. In addition the word “quantum” has become a standard marketing term of alt. med quackery. So how could I resist taking a bite out of “quantum neurology”?

One might think (if one were a completely naïve rube) that those claiming to practice quantum neurology have, through diligent research, discovered how certain quantum principles apply to nervous system function and disease, leading to new treatment modalities. On the other hand, a more savvy consumer of such health claims (such as regular readers of SBM) would likely suspect that quantum neurology will turn out to be the same-old mix of nonsense and snake oil in a shiny new package.

Let’s have a look.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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