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Credulity about acupuncture infiltrates the New England Journal of Medicine

One of the things that disturbs me the most about where medicine is going is the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine. So prevalent is this unfortunate phenomenon that Doctor RW even coined a truly apt term for it: Quackademic medicine. In essence, pseudoscientific and even prescientific ideas are rapidly being “integrated” with science-based medicine, or, as I tend to view it, quackery is being “integrated” with scientific medicine, to the gradual erosion of scientific standards in medicine. No quackery is too quacky, it seems. Even homeopathy and naturopathy can seemingly find their way into academic medical centers.

Probably the most common form of pseudoscience to wend its way into what should be bastions of scientific medicine is acupuncture. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, M. D. Anderson, and many others, they’ve all fallen under the sway of the idea that somehow sticking thin little needles into points that bear no relationship to any known anatomic structure and that supposedly “unblock” the flow of some sort of “life energy” that can’t be detected by any means that science has. Most recently, as I described, studies that seek to “prove that acupuncture works” have found their way into high quality, high impact journals whose editors should know better but apparently can’t recognize that the evidence in the study doesn’t actually show what the authors claim it shows. Even so, there are some journals that I didn’t expect to see this sort of infiltration of quackademic medicine. Granted, I never expected it to show itself in one of the Nature journals, as it did in the study I just mentioned. I also never expected it to show up in that flagship of clinical journals, a journal that is one of the highest impact and most read medical journals that exists. I’m talking the New England Journal of Medicine, and, unfortunately, I’m also talking an unfortunately credulous article from Dr. Brian M. Berman, who is the founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine and the holder of multiple NCCAM center grants, and other institutions, entitled Acupuncture for Chronic Low Back Pain.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia

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“Hard science” and medical school

One of the recurring themes of this blog, not surprisingly given its name, is the proper role of science in medicine. As Dr. Novella has made clear from the very beginning, we advocate science-based medicine (SBM), which is what evidence-based medicine (EBM) should be. SBM tries to overcome the shortcomings of EBM by taking into account all the evidence, both scientific and clinical, in deciding what therapies work, what therapies don’t work, and why. To recap, a major part of our thesis is that EBM, although a step forward over prior dogma-based medical models, ultimately falls short of making medicine as effective as it can be. As currently practiced, EBM appears to worship clinical trial evidence above all else and nearly completely ignores basic science considerations, relegating them to the lowest form of evidence, lower than even small case series. This blind spot has directly contributed to the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine and so-called EBM because in the cases of ridiculously improbable modalities like homeopathy and reiki, deficiencies in how clinical trials are conducted and analyzed can make it appear that these modalities might actually have efficacy.

Given this thesis, if there’s one aspect of medical education that I consider to be paramount, at least when it comes to understanding how to analyze and apply all the evidence, both basic science and clinical, it’s a firm grounding in the scientific method. Unfortunately, in medical school there is very little, if any, concentration on the scientific method. In fact, one thing that shocked me when I first entered what is one of the best medical schools in the U.S., the University of Michigan, was just how “practical” the science taught to us as students was. It was very much a “just the facts, ma’am,” sort of presentation, with little, if any, emphasis on how those scientific facts were discovered. Indeed, before I entered medical school, I had taken graduate level biochemistry courses for a whole year. This was some truly hard core stuff. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get out of taking medical school biochemistry my first year, but taking the course was illuminating. The contrast was marked in that in medical school there was very little in the way of mechanistic detail, but there was a whole lot of memorization. The same was true in nearly all the other classes we took in the first two years. True, for anatomy it’s pretty hard not to have to engage in a lot of rote memorization, but the same shouldn’t necessarily be true of physiology and pharmacology, for example. It was, though.

Over time, I came to realize that there was no easy answer to correcting this problem, because medical school is far more akin to a trade school than a science training school, and the question of how much science and in what form it should be taught are difficult questions that go to the heart of medical education and what it means to be a good physician. Clearly, I believe that, among other things, a good physician must use science-based practice, but how does medical education achieve that? That’s one reason why I’m both appalled and intrigued by a program at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine for humanities majors to enter medical school without all the hard sciences. It’s a program that was written up in the New York Times last Wednesday in an article entitled Getting Into Med School Without Hard Sciences, and whose results were published in Medical Academia under the title Challenging Traditional Premedical Requirements as Predictors of Success in Medical School: The Mount Sinai School of Medicine Humanities and Medicine Program.

Let’s first take a look at how the NYT described the program:
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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NCCAM Director Dr. Josephine Briggs and the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians

On Friday, one of my partners in crime here at Science-Based Medicine, Dr. Kimball Atwood, wrote an excellent Open Letter to Dr. Josephine Briggs. Dr. Briggs, as most regular readers of SBM know, is the Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). As most regular readers of SBM also know, we at SBM have been quite critical of NCCAM for its funding of studies of dubious scientific value, including one that I mentioned quite early on in the history of this blog, in which an R21 grant was awarded to investigators at the University of Arizona for a project entitled Dilution and succussion in homeopathic remedy dose-response patterns. The purpose of this project was to compare the effectiveness of a homeopathic remedy at different dilutions. It even compared remedies that are succussed (vigorously shaken) at each dilution step against remedies that were merely stirred. Although this is merely the most egregious example I could find at the time, two years ago I did catalog many more examples, as well as the “educational” grants disbursed through NCCAM in order to teach (and, by doing so, promote) CAM.

Given NCCAM’s long history of promoting pseudoscience, we were all quite surprised when early this year we received an e-mail from Dr. Briggs herself inviting us to NCCAM to meet with her. Unfortunately, due to our work obligations, Steve Novella, Kimball Atwood, and I were not able to coordinate our schedules to travel to Bethesda and enter the heart of darkness itself until early April. Our conversation with Dr. Briggs and her staff was cordial and mutually respectful, as Steve Novella described, and we assured her that we understood that studies such as the one I mentioned above were funded before her tenure. At the same time we were a bit disappointed that Dr. Briggs appeared far too eager to dismiss such problems as being before her time. Still, we understood and approved of Dr. Briggs’ stated goal of making NCCAM more scientifically rigorous, even though we did point out that there is nothing done at NCCAM that couldn’t be done as well in the NIH’s structure before NCCAM existed.

Unfortunately, not too long before or after Dr. Briggs met with us, she also met with a group of homeopaths, leading us to worry that perhaps in her quest to appear “open-minded,” Dr. Briggs was being so open-minded that her brain was in acute danger of falling out, particularly after we saw her infamous “science must be neutral” director’s newsletter a month later, which Dr. Kimball skewered as part of his open letter and I recently used as an example of misinterpreting what scientific “neutrality” means during my talk at the SBM Workshop at TAM8 a couple of weeks ago. In fact, I now wonder if I missed a little gray matter oozing out of Dr. Briggs’ ears during the meeting even though I sat right next to her.

Unfortunately, Dr. Atwood’s open letter gives me even more reason to despair, because in it he pointed out that Dr. Briggs will be speaking at the 25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) from August 11-15 in Portland, OR. (One wonders if Mark Crislip would be willing to make an appearance there for a Very Special Episode of his Quackcast and thereby continue to expand his Internet empire. I realize that doing so would really be “taking one for the team,” but think of the blogging and podcast material!) Kimball’s explanation why this is disturbing is excellent and detailed, as usual, but one thing he didn’t do as much of as I would have is to go into a bit more detail of what sorts of dubious medical modalities and even outright quackery Dr. Briggs will be associating herself with by speaking at this particular convention. He probably didn’t feel the need, given that he referenced his two comprehensive deconstructions of the quackery that is naturopathy, but I’m not as well-versed in naturopathy as he is, and, I suspect, neither are you. Dr. Atwood didn’t need to delve into the woo that will be presented at the AANP. I do. That’s why I thought a bit of a survey of what will be presented at the conference was in order.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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The Texas Medical Board acts in the case of the Winkler County whistle blowing nurses

I can’t speak for anyone else who blogs here at Science-Based Medicine, but there’s one thing I like to emphasize to people who complain that we exist only to “bash ‘alternative’ medicine.” We don’t. We exist to champion medicine based on science against all manner of dubious practices. Part of that mandate involves understanding and accepting that science-based medicine is not perfect. It is not some sort of panacea. Rather, it has many shortcomings and all too often does not live up to its promise. Our argument is merely that, similar to Winston Churchill’s invocation of the famous saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” science-based medicine is the worst form of medicine except for all the others that have been tried before. (Look for someone to quote mine that sentence soon.) It’s not even close, either. SBM has produced far and away better results than any form of medicine that has come before it, which is why it’s always puzzled me that so much of “alternative” medicine seems to be a throwback to ancient, pre-scientific, sometimes religion-based medical systems that existed in the days before germ theory and a rudimentary understanding of human physiology. After all, it wasn’t until William Harvey in 1626 that doctors even knew for sure that there was a direct connection between the arterial and venous system, for example, and the sphygmomanometer wasn’t invented until 1881. Monitoring blood pressure didn’t become routine until the early 20th century, and monitoring the diastolic blood pressure wasn’t routine until the 1920s.

If there’s one area that SBM needs to do better in, it’s regulating our own. To me, the license to practice medicine is a privilege, not a right. That I should even have to emphasize such a statement is bothersome to me, but all too often medical licenses, once obtained, seem to be treated as a right that can’t easily be taken away. That’s not to say that actually getting to the point of being licensed and board-certified isn’t difficult. It is. There’s the need to maintain excellent grades in college, after which there’s medical school and residency, both of which can be quite brutal. But once a physician is fully trained, board certified, and licensed, it seems that medical boards bend over backwards not to take away his license, seemingly even if he’s providing treatments so far outside the standard of care that they might as well be magic.

The case that provoked this complaint from me is one I’ve written about before, namely that of the Winkler County, TX family practitioner, Dr. Rolando Arafiles, Jr.. At the time, Dr. Arafiles was selling dubious supplements, hawking colloidal silver, promoting Morgellon’s disease quackery, and had anti-vaccine propaganda on his website. It turns out that — finally! — Dr. Arafiles is facing the Texas Medical Board for his substandard practice, as documented in a story on Medscape entitled Physician in Whistle-Blower Case Charged by Texas Medical Board:

The Texas Medical Board (TMB) has charged a family physician at the center of a nationally publicized whistle-blower case involving 2 nurses with poor medical judgment, nontherapeutic prescribing, failure to maintain adequate records, overbilling, witness intimidation, and other violations.

The charges follow a report that the 2 nurses — Anne Mitchell, RN, and Vickilyn Galle, RN — made anonymously to the TMB last year about patient care rendered by Rolando Arafiles, Jr, MD, at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, Texas, where the 2 nurses and Dr. Arafiles worked.

After the TMB contacted him about the report, Dr. Arafiles asked the sheriff of Winkler County to investigate its source. The sheriff, the physician’s acknowledged friend and patient, traced the report back to Mitchell and Gale, who were then charged in a state court with misuse of official information, which is a third-degree felony.

The American Nurses Association at the time called the criminal prosecution “outrageous,” arguing that nurses were obligated to stand up for patient safety.

A local news report on the case can be found here:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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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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Homeopathy in the ICU?

ResearchBlogging.orgEditor’s note: It’s still a holiday weekend in the United States. I had considered simply taking the day off altogether, particularly since I’m busily working on my talk for TAM8–which (holy crap!) is in a mere three days–but then I figured today’s a good time to resurrect a “classic” (if you will) post that I wrote a few years ago, dust it off, and post it. I decided to do this mainly because I had been planning on bringing this post to SBM at some point right from the very beginning of SBM.

Regular readers of this blog are probably familiar with a certain homeopath named Dana Ullman. So persistent is he in his pseudoscientific arguments for the magic that is homeopathy that fellow SBM blogger Kimball Atwood once postulated a humorous law he dubbed the Dull-Man Law:

In any discussion involving science or medicine, being Dana Ullman loses you the argument immediately…and gets you laughed out of the room.

Kimball then pointed to a number of studies that Ullman likes to cite ad nauseam that supposedly “prove” the efficacy of homeopathy. One study Kimball didn’t mention, however, is a favorite of Ullman’s, one he likes to trot out time and time again. Specifically, it’s a study of homeopathy in the ICU that was published, in all places, in Chest, a respectable journal that, as you might expect, is dedicated to research on diseases of the chest, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiac disease, and basically any disease that manifests its pathology in the chest, although it primarily deals with critical care. I first learned of this study way back in 2007 from Dr. R. W., who at the time commented quite aptly that the article impressed him with just how far into the medical mainstream woo has penetrated, while retired doc also expressed his dismay.

Although I do feel a bit guilty not providing you with more original peerless prose pontificating on medical pseudoscience that you know and (hopefully) love, this article is constantly trotted out by homeopaths, even five years later, and that makes it worth updating an older post from another source. So here’s the abstract:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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The price of opposing medical pseudoscience

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is a followup to a post from two weeks ago entitled In which Dr. Gorski once again finds himself a target of the “pharma shill” gambit. If you haven’t read that post before, you might want to go back and read it now before proceeding with this post. Please also note the disclaimer.

I want to beg your indulgence this week, hoping that my history as a blogger here on SBM and then as managing editor allows me that. Today’s post will be a little different because last week was really, really, hectic. First and foremost, I was busy writing a preapplication for a Susan J. Komen Foundation grant for a deadline of last Friday. The Komen Foundation, it turns out, has changed its procedures this year so that the preapplication is now evaluated much more rigorously. It’s no longer looked at just to make sure that the proposed project matches the subject matter and criteria for the request for applications (RFA). This year, the preapplication actually matters! Moreover, it’s so long that writing it is practically like writing the entire grant, other than the budget. But I got it done, and it looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. None of that is any guarantee that Komen will invite us to submit a full application, but I’m hopeful because if it does we should have a good shot at the grant.

Then, this weekend I had to pivot on a dime and return to writing the R01 I had been working on with my collaborator. To make the July resubmission deadline, it has to be done, in the can, and submitted by this Friday. In any case, these are the reasons why this post is likely to be uncharacteristically personal in nature.

Oh, those reasons plus a little bit of character assassination launched at me on Monday by Jake Crosby over at the Age of Autism, entitled David Gorski’s Financial Pharma Ties: What He Didn’t Tell You.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Cancer Treatment Centers of America and “naturopathic oncology”

EDITOR’S NOTICE: NOTE THE DISCLAIMER.

On “wholistic” medicine

If there’s one aspect of so-called “alternative medicine” and “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) is that its practitioners tout as being a huge advantage over what they often refer to sneeringly as “conventional” or “scientific” medicine is that — or so its practitioners claim — alt-med treats the “whole patient,” that it’s “wholistic” in a way that the evil reductionist “Western” science-based medicine can’t be. Supposedly, we reductionistic, unimaginative physicians only focus on disease and ignore the “whole patient.” Of course, to me this claim is belied by the hectoring to which my own primary care physician has subjected me about my horrible diet and lack of exercise on pretty much every visit I’ve had with her, but then maybe she’s an anomaly, along with Dr. Lipson on this very blog and pretty much every other primary care doctor I’ve ever dealt with. Anecdotal experience, I know, but since alt-med mavens appear to value anecdotal evidence above pretty much all else I thought it appropriate to mention here. Also belying the claim of alt-med practitioners that they “individualize” treatments to their patients in a way that science-based medicine does not is the maddening tendency of various alt-med modalities to settle on just One True Cause of All Disease, be it liver flukes as the One True Cause of Cancer, heavy metal toxicity as the One True Cause of cancer, autism, and various other diseases, or “allergies,” acid, or obstruction of the flow of qi as the One True Cause of All Disease.

Given the claim of “wholism” that is such an advertising gimmick among many of the varieties of woo, I’m always interested when I see evidence that alt-med is imitating its envied and disliked reductionistic competition. True, this is nothing new, given how alt-med has tried to seek legitimacy by taking on the mantle of science-based medicine wherever it can. Examples include the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), various organizations that try to confer legitimacy to pseudoscience by providing “certification” in various flavors of woo, and moves to push state medical boards to go further than that and confer legally protected status to practitioners by actually licensing them. This latter tactic has been very successful in that many states now license acupuncturists, while some states even license naturopaths and “homeopathic physicians,” the latter of which I find quite amusing because the term perfectly encapsulates what must remain of such a physician’s medical training after being diluted to 30C with woo. The only difference is that, unlike what is claimed with homeopathy, diluting MD medical knowledge with woo does not make it stronger. In terms of naturopathy, though, one of the most alarming aspects of the infiltration of naturopaths into the health care system is that some states in the U.S. and provinces in Canada are seriously considering allowing them to prescribe real pharmaceutical medications, even though they lack the training and knowledge to use such drugs safely.

Imagine my combination of bemusement and alarm, then, when I learned of a new specialty of pseudoscience, namely the field of naturopathic oncology.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. (I know I was when I first encountered this specialty.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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The genetics of autism

Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) actually represent a rather large continuum of conditions that range from very severe neurodevelopmental delay and abnormalities to the relatively mild. In severe cases, the child is nonverbal and displays a fairly well-characterized set of behaviors, including repetitive behaviors such as “stimming” (for example, hand flapping, making sounds, head rolling, and body rocking.), restricted behavior and focus, ritualistic behavior, and compulsive behaviors. In more mild cases, less severe compulsion, restriction of behavior and focus, and ritualistic behaviors do not necessarily preclude functioning independently in society, but such children and adults may have significant difficulties with social interactions and communication. Because ASDs represent a wide spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders whose symptoms typically first manifest themselves to parents between the ages of two and three, the idea that vaccines cause autism and ASDs has been startlingly difficult to dislodge and has fueled an anti-vaccine movement, both here in the U.S. and in other developed nations, particularly the U.K. and Australia. This movement has been stubbornly resistant to multiple scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines in autism or the other favorite bogeyman of the anti-vaccine movement, the mercury-containing thimerosal preservative that used to be in many childhood vaccines in the U.S. until the end of 2001. Add to that the rising apparent prevalence of ASDs, and, confusing correlation with causation, the anti-vaccine movement concludes that vaccines must be the reason for the “autism epidemic.”

In reality, autism and ASDs appear to be increasing in prevalence due to diagnostic substition, better screening, and the broadening of the diagnostic criteria that occurred in 1994. Autism prevalence does not appear to be rising, at least not dramatically, at all, as the prevalence of ASDs, when assessed carefully, appears to be similar in adults as it is in children. If the true prevalence rate of autism and ASDs has increased, it has not increased by very much. In reality autism appears to have a major and probably predominant genetic component, and several scientific studies over the last few years have linked autism with various genetic abnormalities. Not surprisingly, given the varied presentation and severity of ASDs, these studies have not managed to identify single genes that produce autism or ASDs with a high degree of penetrance (probability of causing the phenotype if the gene is present). Indeed, one can argue that the state of current evidence is that ASDs are due to multiple genes, perhaps dozens or hundreds. Again, this is not surprising given the heterogeneity of ASD severity, presentation, and symptoms.

One of the more surprising studies supporting a genetic basis for autism appeared to much fanfare in Nature last week. The study by Pinto et al, looks at the functional impact of global rare copy number variation in autism spectrum disorders. Its results are rather surprising in that the large team of investigators (studies of this type take a lot of people to carry out) found that it may be relatively uncommon copy number variations in various genes that lead to the phenotype of autism or ASDs.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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