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The “It’s All Good!” Fallacy of Complementary and Alternative Medicine…..

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“Trust me, have I got a deal for you!”

 

As a young mother comforts her feverish and uncomfortable infant, a doctor enters the dimly lit exam room. The child’s mother and the bedside nurse look at him expectantly.

“I’ve got the results. There is an infection in your son’s spinal fluid, which was one of the things we discussed as a possible cause of his high fever and irritablity,” the physician explains to the now crying mother. “We need to start treatment right away and admit him to the hospital.”

After answering the distraught mother’s questions and discussing her child’s treatment plan, the doctor leaves the room and begins to write orders in the patient’s chart. The nurse, eager to begin appropriate therapy looks over his shoulder with a confused look on his face.

“Excuse me doc, but you’ve got to be a little more clear on that order don’t you think?”

Written in barely legible doctor scribble, next to the date and time of the encounter and above his signature and hospital number, is the lone word “antibiotics”.

“What do you mean? This child is sick and he needs antibiotics stat!”

“Sure doc, but which one, how much and how often? Where did you go to medical school again?”

“Clearly you aren’t current on the literature. Antibiotics have been around for decades and have been proven time and time again to treat infections. Millions of people take them every day and are pleased with the results. Now you are wasting precious time that could be spent caring for this sick child!”

The nurse, unhappy with the response, storms off to find assistance from his supervisor. The doctor, confident that he is providing competent medical are for his patient, expresses dismay at how closed-minded some of his colleagues are.

Naturally, the above situation is absurd, and the nurse is completely correct in questioning the physician on his order for “antibiotics”. What antibiotic, or antibiotics, are appropriate and at what dose? Through what route, oral or parenteral (e.g. intravenously or intramuscularly), should the antibiotic be administered? How often should it be given and for what duration? Five days? Two weeks? To condense the large number of antibiotics available in a hospital pharmacy into one all-encompassing term makes no sense.

Antibiotics are drugs, often consisting of completely different chemical structures with significantly different side effect profiles. There are varying degrees of safety and effectiveness with each individual antibiotic depending on the bacteria/virus/fungus being treated, the location of the infection, the age of the patient, and the presence of co-morbid conditions such as renal or liver disease. Calling for “antibiotics” in this fashion would never happen outside of a poorly written (is there any other kind?) medical drama on Lifetime.

As new antibiotics have been developed over the years, they are studied scientifically on an individual basis. Sure there are classes of antibiotics that work via similar mechanisms, such as breaking down a bacterial cell wall, or that might be effective in killing or delaying the growth of the same types of bacteria, but nobody would make a blanket statement, let alone write an order, like the one written by our fictional physician. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant in the world of so-called complementary and alternative medicine.

The “It’s All Good!” fallacy is employed by individual practitioners, lobbying organizations and even government agencies sympathetic to alternative medicine as a means of deceptively gaining a foothold for their favorite implausible and unproven therapies. Their targets are the hearts and minds of consumers as well as a growing number of practicing medical professionals. Buoyed by media-fueled public awareness that lacks appropriate context, the growing popularity of a variety of bogus therapies, funding from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and clever marketing, the most ridiculous of ideas are now masquerading as medicine in even our most hallowed academic institutions.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Delaying School Start Times for Sleep Deprived Teens

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In August of this year, a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics was published which tackled the widespread problem of insufficient sleep in our adolescent population. They even went so far as to label insufficient sleep as “one of the most common, important, and potentially remediable health risks in children.” The statement, which gave a number of recommendations on how to address the problem, made the news rounds primarily because of the call for schools to delay start times until at least 8:30 AM.

I wrote about pediatric sleep in March for a post on the potential link between some sleep disorders in children, specifically nightmares and night terrors, and the development of psychosis. Those claims are suspect but please read that post for a review of what sleep is, why we need it, and what can go wrong with it in children of all ages. For this post, my focus will be on adolescent sleep specifically, and on the role of delaying school start times in improving a variety of health parameters.

What are the common adolescent sleep challenges?

The typical modern teenager faces a variety of challenges to consistently obtaining a full nights sleep, which is considered by most sleep experts to be in the 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night range. This doesn’t mean that every teenager will fall apart if they only get 7 hours of sleep each night, but sub-optimal sleep can adversely affect school performance in many, and even lead to long-term health problems in some children who establish such a pattern during these pivotal years. Hold that thought for now, however.

One obvious reason for insufficient sleep in teenagers, at least it is likely obvious if you have one of your own or have ever spent more than two minutes near one, is technology. Most older children have electronic media in their rooms, if not attached to their bodies in the form of a smart phone. 24-7 access to the internet and social media is a commonly cited impediment to sleep onset. The increasing availability and popularity of energy drinks containing absurd amounts of caffeine among adolescents likely also plays a role as both a coping strategy for daytime fatigue resulting from insufficient sleep, and as a cause of it. In fact, I think I’ve just come up with the topic for my next post.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Hiccups: From Acupuncture to Quantum Touch

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Foolproof cure for hiccups?

nOne of the most common questions I get in the newborn nursery, especially from first time parents, involves hiccups. Babies hiccup in the womb and most, if not all of them, will have periodic bouts of hiccups in the neonatal period. But many new parents are surprised by their baby’s first spasmodic contractions of the diaphragm. When brought up, it is often to simply acknowledge that their baby had a run of a few hiccups, usually associated with a feed, with some parents expressing surprise and others nervousness. Regardless of their assumed motivation, I always provide reassurance that hiccups are a normal experience for babies, as they are across the entire spectrum of age.

The medical term for hiccups, which I admit I only learned while researching this topic, is “singultus.” We doctors like to use our own peculiar language as much as possible in order to maintain a sense of superiority when dealing with today’s internet savvy customers, I mean patients, and their families. The rumbling of your stomach, that’s actually borborygmus. You don’t have a unibrow above your nose, that’s a synophrys. It isn’t abdominal or pelvic discomfort associated with ovulation that keeps annoying you midway through your menstrual cycle, it’s mittelschmerz. But since this is a forum meant for general public consumption, I’ll use the rather pedestrian and philistine “hiccup” for the duration of the post. (more…)

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A Touch to Fear: Chiropractic and the Newborn Baby

A significant part of my job as a pediatric hospitalist involves caring for newborns. It is arguably the best thing that I get to do as a physician, even if I do at times prefer the increased intellectual stimulation of the ill hospitalized child. While seeing newborns, I am almost always surrounded by happy and appreciative parents, grandparents and whoever else is invited to meet and greet the new arrival because the babies are almost always healthy. In fact, and not that I really care (sniff, sniff), the parents of newborns are with rare exception the only caregivers that ever thank me at discharge.

Unfortunately, sometimes I am called upon to assist babies that are having difficulty transitioning into the outside world for a variety of reasons. These reasons can range from the fairly minor and transient to the catastrophic. And despite our advances in the understanding of neonatal pathophysiology and in medical technology, there remain newborn infants that cannot be saved or who have severe lifelong deficits caused by their illness or injury. This will likely always be the case, especially if unqualified professionals continue to involve themselves in either the delivery or the care of babies.

Over the course of 11 years of practice, and after having seen thousands of both perfectly healthy and severely ill newborns, I have acquired a skill set which allows for the recognition of a baby in trouble and the ability to respond appropriately. All pediatricians and family doctors strive to develop this, particularly if they see patients in the newborn nursery, although I imagine none, including myself, would claim to have perfected this “art”. Newborn medicine can be very challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is the significant overlap of the presenting signs and symptoms of many serious conditions, with even normal baby behavior sometimes mimicking potentially life-threatening pathology. (more…)

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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Nocturnal Enuresis

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There is no role of chiropractic in treating childhood bedwetting

In pediatrics, very few things are completely black and white. This is an aspect of conventional medicine in general that tends to separate the approach of science-based practitioners from that of proponents of the many forms of irregular medicine commonly discussed on SBM. They appear to experience no shame in claiming absolute certainty while doling out all manner of implausible remedies for ailments ranging from the well-established to the fictional.

While we do face questions from patients and their caregivers regarding largely invented diagnoses in pediatrics, with chronic Lyme disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity being just two of many increasingly encountered concerns, my experience has been that alternative medical providers tend to focus their efforts on the same real problems that pediatricians and family practitioners deal with on a daily basis. And I don’t believe that it is mere coincidence that these conditions are largely self-limited in nature, a fact often not shared. Parental and patient buy-in is often more easily obtained with certainty rather than nuance.

Chiropractors, for example, seem to pride themselves on their ability to cure ear infections. Of course in greater than 80% of children with acute ear infections, symptoms will resolve without any intervention whatsoever. This is why the AAP has been trying for years to decrease the rates of antibiotic prescriptions for ear infections, unfortunately with little in the way of success thus far. And when the infections don’t resolve on their own, there is no good evidence that anything a chiropractor has to offer can help. The same can be said for their claims regarding colic and gastroesophageal reflux, which I’ve written about before.

Another condition frequently mentioned by chiropractors as being particularly in their wheelhouse is nighttime bedwetting, the medical term for this being nocturnal enuresis. Rarely have I seen a chiropractic website with a section on the benefits for children that does not mention their success in curing bedwetting. Fred Clary, DC, even claims on his website to be able to cure bedwetting in the newborn baby. And to think I’ve just been ignoring the problem as a newborn hospitalist. Is it because the thought of a newborn infant gaining continence is absurd, or am I just a shill for Big Pampers?
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Should the Incidental Discovery of Nonparentage be Disclosed?

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“Ummm, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.”

The July issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, contains an extremely thought provoking article discussing the risks and benefits of disclosing an incidental finding of nonparentage during pediatric genetic testing. Nonparentage occurs when one, or very rarely both, of the social parents did not serve as source code for a child’s genetic programming, so to speak. Naturally, we aren’t talking about known adoptions but rather when the nonbiological parent is unaware of the fact that they did not contribute an egg or sperm.

Authors Marissa Palmor and Autumn Fiester, both bioethicists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, take the position of universal nondisclosure when nonparentage is discovered. They acknowledge the pro-disclosure arguments and, in my opinion, successfully rebut them. They go on to make a compelling recommendation for the incorporation of a universal nondisclosure clause into consent forms which states clearly that parental status will not be discussed. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics

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The Buzzy: Revolutionary Acute Pain Management or Simple Distraction…

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I’ve written about the management of acute pain in children in the past, and unfortunately my feelings haven’t changed in the interim. Acute pain, particularly pain related to procedures such as venipuncture for blood sampling and intravenous access, and intramuscular administration of medications such as antibiotics and vaccines, is commonly undertreated, downplayed and even ignored altogether by medical professionals and even caregivers. So when I was made aware of a device being used in pediatric clinics and emergency departments (and even available for home use) with apparent success in preventing or reducing procedural pain in children, I was intrigued and more than a bit hopeful. (more…)

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Is There a Role for the Art of Medicine in Science-Based Practice?

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The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.

The practice of medicine is an art, based on science.

-Sir William Osler, AEQUANIMITAS

The truth is that many of us have some kind of “extraordinary gift.” For a few of us, that gift is the ability to throw a ball at 90 miles per hour and hit a catcher’s glove. For others, that gift is a form of extraordinary perception. Medical intuitives “see” things that others don’t. Wendy Marks has been described as a “human CT scan.” What no one has been able to diagnose by conventional methods is often seen when Wendy scans a body.

-Boston Women’s Journal April/May 2002

The concept of an art to the practice of medicine comes up frequently and in a variety of contexts. Early on in our medical education, we are exposed to the phrase and what it supposedly means, which I will discuss in more detail shortly. But the art of medicine is always painted (pun intended) in a positive light. I will admit that I have a strong opinion, perhaps biased by my involvement with the science-based medicine movement and an equally early exposure during my medical training to champions of evidence-based practice and the use of critical thinking in the approach to patient care.
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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Infant Gastroesophageal Reflux

By now, regular SBM readers should be aware of the Choosing Wisely initiative. Just in case, Choosing Wisely is a campaign developed by the ABIM Foundation to bring together experts from a variety of medical specialties in order to identify common practices that should be questioned by patients and providers, if not outright discontinued. Their ultimate goal was not to establish treatment guidelines or dictate care, but to foster discussion. As I’ve written about in a prior post on the overuse of antibiotics in pediatrics, it doesn’t appear to have caught on. I routinely ask colleagues, residents and students if they are aware of it, and am frequently disappointed by their response.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a list of five questionable practices back in February of 2013 and I loved it. All five are important:

  1. Stop treating viruses with antibiotics
  2. Stop prescribing and recommending cough and cold medicines for young children
  3. Stop routine use of CT scans for minor head injuries
  4. Stop routine use of neuroimaging for simple febrile seizures
  5. Stop routine use of CT scans for abdominal pain
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Separating Fact from Fiction in the Not-So-Normal Newborn Nursery: Newborn Jaundice

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Photo by Mike Blyth

By far the most common medical problem in newborn infants is jaundice, typically appreciated as a yellowish discoloration of the skin caused by increased blood levels of a pigment called bilirubin. In my role as a newborn hospitalist, I manage jaundice every day. If I am not treating jaundice, in every single baby I see I am at least determining the risk of the child developing jaundice severe enough to require treatment. I then use that assessment to help guide my recommendations on when the infant should follow up with their primary care pediatrician after discharge home.

Fortunately for the millions of infants who develop jaundice every year, in the vast majority it is a self-limited process and often considered to be just a normal part of the first few days of life. But in a significant minority of them, careful management is required in order to prevent complications. Some infants need treatment to prevent neurological symptoms from developing, and to reverse them when they do occur. And in a very small percentage of babies who develop severe jaundice, permanent brain damage and even death can occur.

Because newborn jaundice tends to resolve without any intervention, and complications are now uncommon, it isn’t surprising that a variety of myths and superstitions have arisen that involve preventing or curing the condition. And naturally there are practitioners of unproven alternative medical modalities that can be found claiming to be able to manage it as well. As expected, if you’ve spent any time reading Science-Based Medicine or researching the nonsensical claims of chiropractors, homeopaths and their ilk, their understanding is limited and their recommendations potentially dangerous.

But first a crash course on newborn jaundice. (more…)

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