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E-cigarettes: The growing popularity of an unregulated drug delivery device

This post is not about vaccines (for a change).

However, I deem it appropriate to mention that one of the topics that I blog most frequently about is vaccines and how the antivaccine movement pushes pseudoscience and quackery based on its apparently implacable hatred of vaccines. (You’ll see why very shortly.) It seems almost as long as my interest in the topic since I first noticed that the antivaccine movement acquired its very own celebrity spokesperson in Jenny McCarthy, who at least since 2007 has been promoting outrageous quackery and pseudoscience associated with her antivaccine views. To her, vaccines are chock full of “toxins” and all sorts of evil humors that will turn your child autistic in a heartbeat and in general “steal” your “real” child away from you the way she thinks vaccines “stole” her son Evan away from her. Indeed, among other “achievements,” she’s written multiple books about autism in which vaccines feature prominently as a cause, led a march on Washington to “green our vaccines” and has been the president of the antivaccine group Generation Rescue for the last few years. None of this stopped ABC from foolishly hiring her to join the regular cast on The View beginning in a few short weeks.

Because I occasionally check on what Jenny McCarthy is up to, I noticed a couple of weeks ago that she had been hired to be a celebrity spokesperson for blu™ e-cigarettes. Here she is, hawking the blu™ Starter Pack:

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Posted in: Cancer, Medical devices, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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When doctors betray their patients and science-based medicine for money

We spend a lot of time on this blog discussing failures of the medical system. Usually, we such discussions occur in the context of how unscientific practices and even outright quackery have managed to infiltrate what should be science-based medicine (SBM) in the form of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine,” in which the quackery of alternative medicine is “integrated” with SBM. Our attitude towards this practice is, of course, completely in tune with that of fellow SBM blogger Mark Crislip when he so famously wrote, “If you integrate fantasy with reality, you do not instantiate reality. If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.” However, as grave a threat to SBM as CAM and integrative medicine are, there is a threat at least as grave here in the U.S. (and, I presume, in many places in the world). It has little or nothing to do directly with CAM, but often CAM practitioners benefit from it. What I am referring to is the utter ineffectiveness of most state medical boards in reining in quackery and bad physician behavior that endangers patients. A recent story about a prominent Detroit area oncologist named Farid Fata, MD, who has been arrested and charged with administering unnecessary chemotherapy and of diagnosing patients with cancer who turned out not to have cancer in order to defraud Medicare, has led me to think that now might be a good time to revisit this issue. Then I heard about an Ohio spine surgeon indicted for performing unnecessary surgeries to defraud insurance companies, and I knew that now is a good time to revisit the issue.

I’ve discussed this issue before with respect to various practitioners over the years. One that comes to mind immediately is Dr. Rolando Arafiles at the Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, TX. Basically, a CAM-friendly physician was practicing substandard medicine, and two nurses reported him anonymously to the Texas Medical Board. Dr. Arafiles was a business partner with Winkler County Sheriff Robert Roberts, who left no stone unturned to discover who had complained about his good buddy, leading to the prosecution of the two whistleblowing nurses for violation of patient privacy, even though Texas law explicitly said that using patient information to report substandard care is not a violation of patient privacy. The entire medical establishment seemed to be trying to come down on the two brave nurses like the proverbial ton of bricks. Ultimately, the Texas Medical Board did the right thing, but it took a long time, and two responsible nurses who couldn’t bear seeing Dr. Arafiles continue to betray patient trust. There are many other examples, such as that of Dr. Rashid Buttar, a North Carolina doctor known for using “alternative” treatments for autism and cancer who got off with a slap on the wrist for some truly horrendous violations of the standard of care.

And don’t even get me started on the utter failure of the Texas Medical Board to put a stop to Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s unethical abuse of clinical trials and use of an unproven cancer drug for over 36 years or on how it took decades to finally put a stop to Dr. Mark Geier’s autism quackery in the United States. So what about these recent cases have in common? It’s that they were both busted by the feds. The relevant state medical boards in Michigan and Ohio (both states in which I hold a medical license) did not detect the medical misadventures and did, as far as I can tell, basically nothing to stop it.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation

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A favorite tactic of the antivaccine movement: When science doesn’t support you, use the law

As I’ve joked about before, I’m a bit like Dug the Dog from the movie Up whenever a squirrel goes by. In other words, I’m easily distracted by things that interest my primal urge to chase pseudoscience. I originally had a cancer-related topic in mind for this week’s foray into science-based medicine, but then on Friday our favorite group of antivaccine activists over at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism induced a squirrel to run in front of me, and the rest is history, at least for the moment. I’ll try to get back to my original topic either as a bonus post later this week or as next week’s post (unlike the topic of today’s post it’s not really particularly time sensitive). In the meantime, I’ll chase this squirrel. Sorry about that. But Dug’s gotta do what Dug’s gotta do. Besides, the topic I had in mind for this week is sufficiently complex that my ultimate post will probably end up being much better if I have a few more days to a week to think about it. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years opposing the antivaccine movement, it’s that these days its “Holy Grail” (well, a “holy grail”) is to have a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study performed, or, as it’s frequently abbreviated, a “vaxed verus unvaxed” study. The reason they want such a study so badly is not because they think there’s a scientific question that genuinely cries out for an answer. Rather, they believe it will confirm their fixed, unalterable belief that vaccines are the root of nearly all chronic health conditions children suffer today, particularly autism and autism spectrum disorders. In particular, they believe that a “vaxed versus unvaxed” study would demonstrate once and for all that vaccines are the cause of the “autism epidemic.” Hilariously, a few years back, the antivaccine group Generation Rescue tried to do such a study. It was more an utterly incompetently administered and analyzed telephone survey than anything else, and, ironically, its results actually were just as consistent with the conclusions that vaccines protect against autism as that they predispose to autism. And don’t even get me started on an even more hilariously incompetent vaxed versus unvaxed study by a German antivaccine homeopath (I know; “antivaccine homeopath” is redundant) that antivaccinationists were touting a while back. That took attempts to ape science to depressingly ridiculous extremes.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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The difference between science-based medicine and CAM

“Alternative medicine,” so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or, as it’s become fashionable to call it, “integrative medicine” is a set of medical practices that are far more based on belief than science. As Mark Crislip so pointedly reminded us last week, CAM is far more akin to religion than science-based medicine (SBM). However, as I’ve discussed more times than I can remember over the years, both here and at my not-so-super-secret-other blog, CAM practitioners and advocates, despite practicing what is in reality mostly pseudoscience-based medicine, crave the imprimatur that science can provide, the respect that science has. That is why, no matter how scientifically implausible the treatment, CAM practitioners try to tart it up with science. I say “tart it up” because they aren’t really providing a scientific basis for their favored quackery. In reality, what they are doing is choosing science-y words and using them as explanations without actually demonstrating that these words have anything to do with how their favored CAM works.

A more important fundamental difference between CAM and real medicine is that CAM practices are not rejected based on evidence. Basically, they never go away. Take homeopathy, for example. (Please!) It’s the ultimate chameleon. Even 160 years ago, it was obvious from a scientific point of view that homeopathy was nonsense and that diluting something doesn’t make it stronger. When it became undeniable that this was the case, through the power of actually knowing Avogadro’s number, homeopaths were undeterred. They concocted amazing explanations of how homeopathy “works” by claiming that water has “memory.” It supposedly “remembers” the substances with which it’s been in contact and transmits that “information” to the patient. No one’s ever been able to explain to me why transmitting the “information” from a supposed memory of water is better than the information from the real drug or substance itself, but that’s just my old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, scientific nature being old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, and scientific. Then, of course, there’s the term “quantum,” which has been so widely abused by Deepak Chopra, his acolytes, and the CAM community in general, while the new CAM buzzword these days to explain why quackery “works” is epigenetics. Basically, whenever a proponent of alternative medicine uses the word “epigenetics” or “quantum” to explain how an alternative medicine treatment “works,” what he really means is, “It’s magic.” This is a near-universal truth, and even the most superficial probing of such justifications will virtually always reveal magical thinking combined with an utter ignorance of the science of quantum mechanics or epigenetics.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Homeopathy, Medical Academia

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Stanislaw Burzynski: The Early Years, part 1

It’s been a week now since I got back from TAM, where Bob Blaskiewicz and I tag-teamed a talk about a man who has become a frequent topic of this blog, namely Stanislaw Burzynski. I’ve been meaning to come back to the topic of Burzynski, but from a different angle. There hasn’t been much in the way of news lately other than the release of Eric Merola‘s most recent propaganda “documentary,” Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2, but, believe it or not, there remain lots of loose ends that I haven’t covered. This time around, the angle is this: How did Burzynski get his start? His is a story that goes back over 46 years, and in the beginning he seemed to be a promising young academic physician and a perfectly respectable researcher. So what happened? How did he evolve from a seemingly idealistic young Polish physician to what he has been for many years now?

I started to think about this when I was writing my post about “alternative cancer cures” circa 1979, because one of the three articles written by Gary Null and various coauthors that appeared in Penthouse magazine in the fall that year, The Suppression of Cancer Cures, was dedicated primarily to Stanislaw Burzynski and his “antineoplastons,” which at the time were new news, so to speak. However, Null’s article, even though it was contemporaneous with Burzynski’s having recently struck out on his own and started his own clinic, didn’t reveal everything that I was interested in learning. Actually, the more I read, the more I realize that no source really reveals everything that I want to know about that time period in the 1970s and early 1980s that produced the Stanislaw Burzynski that we know and don’t love today. Available sources all tend to be either pro-Burzynski, Burzynski himself, or vague in the extreme about what happened. Fortunately, my research for my TAM talk will serve multiple purposes. Since the talk was so brief and required me to cover 40+ years of history in a mere 20 minutes, there was a lot left out. I hate to let all that research go to waste; so I’m going to use it for an intermittent series of blog posts.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Doing Eric Merola a favor…

Believe it or not, I’m going to do Eric Merola (who doesn’t particularly like me, to the point of thinking, apparently, that I’m a white supremacist who doesn’t like evidence but does like to eat puppies) a favor. Having been away at TAM and otherwise occupied hanging out with fellow skeptics and, more stressfully, getting ready to give a talk in front of as many as 1,000 people on Saturday, somehow I missed this. Well, actually, I didn’t miss it, but somehow I forgot to post it, even though it would have only take a few minutes. Then when I got home I still forgot to post it. Now there are only three days left (four, counting today) for me to do it; so I’d better get to it. My having forgotten to do this is particularly amazing given the subject of my main stage talk at TAM, our old buddy Stanislaw Burzynski. I’m even doing it as an extra “bonus” post on a day that I don’t usually post on SBM.

I wonder if Merola will appreciate the favor I’ve done him?

Eric Merola, as you recall, is a filmmaker who was responsible for two propaganda films about Stanislaw Burzynski, the dubious cancer doctor who has used “antineoplastons” to treat cancer without having published any decent clinical trial evidence that they do what he claims. Back in 2010, Merola released the first of a not-so-dynamic duo of films, the first of which was called Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is A Serious Business (or B1, as I like to call it). The movie didn’t do much for a year or more, but then über-quack Joe Mercola promoted it, and somehow Eric Merola landed an interview with Dr. Oz on his radio show. The sequel, the slightly less pretentiously titled Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2 (or B2, as I like to call it), was then released June 1 on various pay-per-view modes. As has been pointed out, it’s no better than the first, and it features direct attacks on the skeptics who had the temerity to criticized Burzynski and Merola over the last couple of years.
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and the Media

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Do clinical trials work? It depends on what you mean by “work”

Introduction

(Skip to the next section if you want to miss the self-referential blather about TAM.)

As I write this, I’m winging my way home from TAM, crammed uncomfortably—very uncomfortably—in a window seat in steerage—I mean, coach). I had been thinking of just rerunning a post and having done with it, sleeping the flight away, to arrive tanned, rested, and ready to continue the battle against pseudoscience and quackery at home, but this seat is just too damned uncomfortable. So I might as well use the three and a half hours or so left on this flight to write something. If this post ends abruptly, it will be because I’ve run out of time and a flight attendant is telling me to shut down my computer in those cloyingly polite but simultaneously imperious voices that they all seem to have.

I had thought of simply recounting the adventures of the SBM crew who did make it out to TAM to give talks at workshops and the main stage and to be on panels, but that seems too easy. Even easier, I could simply post my slides online. But, no, how on earth can I reasonably expect Mark Crislip to post while he’s at TAM if I’m too frikkin’ lazy to follow suit? I’m supposed to lead by example, right, even if what comes out is nearly as riddled with spelling and grammar errors (not to mention the occasional incoherent sentence) as a Mark Crislip post? Example or not, lazy or not, I would be remiss if, before delving into the topic of today’s post, I didn’t praise my fellow SBM bloggers who were with me, namely Steve Novella, Harriet Hall, and Mark Crislip, for their excellent talks and insightful analysis. Ditto Bob Blaskiewicz, with whom I tag-teamed a talk on everybody’s favorite cancer “researcher” and doctor, Stanislaw Burzynski. It’ll be fun to see the reaction of Eric Merola and all the other Burzynski sycophants, toadies, and lackeys when Bob’s and my talks finally hit YouTube. Sadly, we’ll have to wait several weeks for that. (Hmmm. Maybe I will post those slides later this week.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials

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A Trilogy of (Acupuncture) Terror

A Trilogy of (Acupuncture) Terror

TAM is fast approaching, and I’ve been frantically trying to get my talks together. The theme this year is “Fighting the Fakers,” and one of my talks will be for the Science-Based Medicine Workshop on Thursday, in which I will attempt in a mere 15 minutes to explain what Science-Based Medicine is and how it can be used to combat the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical academia. Then, the second talk will be a tag-team spectacular with Bob Blaskiewicz about Stanislaw Burzynski as an example of how some cranks skirt the edges of science-based medicine. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous (if anything, it makes them more dangerous), but it does make them not as easy to identify as someone like, say, Hulda Clark.

Trilogy_of_Terror_Poster

Unfortunately, between working on these talks, revising some papers, and having an unusually busy weekend on call, I wasn’t sure what I was going to come up with for the edification of you, our readers. Fortunately, right on the 4th of July holiday, there was an article that gave me my idea, particularly given that I had noticed a couple of studies on the very subject of the article in the week leading up to the long holiday in the US (at least for people not on call). As a result, I’m half tempted to refer to this article as a trilogy of acupuncture terror.

Oh, wait. I just did. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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Expectations versus reality in science-based oncology

Well, the latest round of grant applications and pre-applications is finally over, which gave me time this weekend to peruse the stack of journals that’s been accumulating on my desk. Oddly enough, despite my being about as plugged in as you can be at my age, I’m still old-fashioned enough to enjoy the physical sensation and the overall experience of picking up the most recent issue of a journal and randomly flipping through it. There’s something about the feel of the paper, the smell of the coating and print, as well as the sheer undirectedness of it all. It’s how I find articles that I probably would never find if I relied just on perusing the table of contents of an electronic edition.

Sadly, that’s not how I found this week’s topic. The study that I’m going to discuss this week is an E-pub ahead of print that I became aware of through a Reuters story, late last week when I still didn’t have time to deal with it. As is my usual practice, I saved the link for later in Safari’s Reading List, and this time I actually managed to come back to it. The story is entitled “Many cancer patients expect palliative care to cure“, and it’s about a recent publication out of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute published online in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) entitled “Expectations About the Effectiveness of Radiation Therapy Among Patients With Incurable Lung Cancer“. It caught my eye, even a week ago, because managing expectations in patients with advanced cancer. It then led me to do a search for related articles, which brought me to a similar study from last fall in the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled “Patients’ Expectations about Effects of Chemotherapy for Advanced Cancer“, also from the same group at the Dana-Farber. This latter study looked at patients’ expectations regarding chemotherapy, and I even remember having encountered it when it was first published and wanted to blog about it then. I don’t recall why I didn’t, but here’s my chance to revisit it.
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Posted in: Cancer

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On humility, confidence, and science-based surgery

Every so often, the reality of trying to maintain a career in science-based medicine interferes with the fun that is writing for this blog. Basically, what happened is that I spent the entire weekend working on three different grant applications and, by the time Sunday night rolled around, I was too exhausted to write what I had originally planned on writing. Fortunately, one advantage of having been blogging so long and also having blogged under a pseudonym over at my not-so-super-secret other blog is that there’s a lot of material which is pretty damned good, if I do say so myself, that I can draw on for just these situations. Even better, it’s old enough that it’s unlikely that most of you have actually come across it before, which makes it new to you (well, at least most of you). As a special bonus, the jumping off point was a post by an occasional contributor to this blog, Peter Lipson. Actually, I wish Peter would contribute more regularly, but he’s too busy moving on to bigger things at Forbes.

This time around, I’m half-recycling, half-revising a post that was a bit more navel-gazing than usual. However, as the only surgeon on SBM I think it’s actually useful every now and then to discuss the trials and tribulations of practicing science-based surgery. It began when Peter wrote an excellent meditation on a topic that’s always been a difficult issue for me to face as a surgeon, namely how one balances confidence in one’s ability with humility in the face of disease and uncertain science. He started with a spot-on observation:

The practice of medicine requires a careful mix of humility and confidence. Finding this balance is very tricky, as humility can become halting indecision and confidence can become reckless arrogance. Teaching these traits is a combination of drawing out a young doctor’s natural strengths, tamping down their weaknesses, and tossing in some didactic knowledge.

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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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