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Reading Medical Literature with a Critical Eye

A long time ago I read a study about what makes a good doctor. Some things you might think were important, like grades in medical school, were irrelevant. What correlated the best was the number of medical journals a doctor read. I don’t know whether that means good doctors read more journals or reading more journals makes a better doctor.

One thing I do know is that most of us could learn better journal-reading skills. When I was a busy clinician, I did what I suspect many busy clinicians do: I let the journals pile up for a while, then tackled a stack when I got motivated. I would skim the table of contents to pick out articles that I wanted to read, then I would read the abstracts of those articles. If the abstract interested me, I would read the discussion section of the article. If I was still interested, I might go back and read the entire article. But until after I retired, I never really developed the skills to evaluate the quality of the study.

I knew enough not to jump on the bandwagon the first time something was reported, because I had seen promising treatments bite the dust with further testing. But I really wasn’t aware of all the things that can go wrong in a study, and I didn’t know what to look for to decide if the results were really credible. I’m not an academic; I thought the authors knew a lot more than I did, and I trusted them to a degree that was not warranted. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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The “Art” of Clinical Decision-Making

Much nonsense has been written about the “art” of medicine. All too often, it amounts to a rationalization for doctors doing what they want to do instead of following the evidence. Medicine is not an art like painting. Neither is it a science like physics. It’s an applied science. Since patients are not all identical, it can be very tricky to decide how to apply the science to the individual.

The New England Journal of Medicine periodically runs a feature called “Clinical Decisions.” They present a case history, then they present 2 or 3 expert opinions on how to manage the case. They stress that none of the options can be considered either correct or incorrect. They allow readers to “vote” as well as to submit comments about why they voted that way. It is understood that the voting is only for interest and to stimulate discussion: it does not result in a consensus.

In April 2008 the topic was the management of carotid artery stenosis. The patient is a 67 year old man who has no symptoms but who is found to have a narrowing of 70-80% in one carotid artery and 20% in the other, putting him at increased risk for stroke. He has other risk factors for cardiovascular disease: hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and overweight. The 3 options are medical management, stent placement, and carotid endarterectomy. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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On Being Certain

Neurologist Robert A. Burton, MD has written a gem of a book: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. His thesis is that “Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” Your certainty that you are right has nothing to do with how right you are.

Within 24 hours of the Challenger explosion, psychologist Ulric Neisser had 106 students write down how they’d heard about the disaster, where they were, what they were doing at the time, etc. Two and a half years later he asked them the same questions. 25% gave strikingly different accounts, more than half were significantly different, and only 10% had all the details correct. Even after re-reading their original accounts, most of them were confident that their false memories were true. One student commented, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

Just as we may “know” things that clearly aren’t true, we may think we don’t know when we really do. In the phenomenon of blindsight, patients with a damaged visual cortex have no awareness of vision, but can reliably point to where a light flashes when they think they are just guessing. And there are states of “knowing” that don’t correspond to any specific knowledge: mystical or religious experiences. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Chiropractic and Stroke

I wonder how many people have heard that chiropractic neck adjustments can cause strokes. It isn’t exactly common knowledge. One organization is trying to raise public awareness through signs on the side of city buses (Injured by a Chiropractor? Call this number) and through TV commercials. I had never heard about this phenomenon myself until a few years ago, when I heard it mentioned on an episode of Alan Alda’s Scientific American Frontiers. I questioned his accuracy, but I quickly found confirmation in the medical literature.

A typical case was that of 24 year old Kristi Bedenbaugh who saw her chiropractor for sinus headaches. During a neck manipulation she suffered a brain stem stroke and she died three days later. Autopsy revealed that the manipulation had split the inside walls of both of her vertebral arteries, causing the walls to balloon and block the blood supply to the lower part of her brain. Additional studies concluded that blood clots had formed on the days the manipulation took place. The chiropractor later paid a $1000 fine. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic

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Women in Medicine

Why aren’t there more women in science and medicine? Just because we lack certain anatomical dangly bits, does that mean we’re less capable? Apparently Harvard’s president Lawrence H. Summers thought so. In a classic case of foot-in-mouth disease, he suggested that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. His comments (in 2005) predictably set off a media feeding frenzy. I won’t even attempt to get into that nature/nurture controversy. Whatever the statistical generalities, the fact is that individual women can and do succeed in those careers. What really matters is whether qualified women today have a fair opportunity to choose their profession and rise in it.

Something very interesting is happening in medicine. It’s happening slowly, quietly, and steadily, with no help from affirmative action programs.

At the beginning of the 20th century about 5 percent of the doctors in the United States were women. In 1970, it was still only 7 percent. By 1998, 23 percent of all doctors were women, and today, women make up more than 50 percent of the medical student population. In 1968 only 1.2% of practicing dentists were women. By 2003, 17% of dentists were women, and 35% of dentists in new active private practice were female. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Charlatan: Quackery Then and Now

Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, by Pope Brock, is not only a rip-roaring good read, but it brings up serious issues about regulation of medical practice and prosecution of quackery. It tells the story of John R. Brinkley MD, who transplanted goat glands into people, and of Morris Fishbein MD, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who tried to stop him.

The Charlatan

Brinkley was a colorful character whose very first job was a scam, selling a patent remedy. He went to medical school but never finished, eventually buying a diploma elsewhere for $100. A bigamist, drunkard, liar, and con man of incredible audacity, he built up an empire of quackery that made him filthy rich. Apart from his medical adventures, he practically invented modern political campaigning techniques, revolutionized advertising, and was almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing country music and the blues with his radio station.

An impotent patient supposedly told Brinkley, “Too bad I don’t have goat nuts.” So Brinkley gave him some. A few weeks later he went back for a refresher course in surgery (which he failed because of drunkenness and poor attendance). He began to feel that he was gifted and should not be bound by the “jealous sheep ethics” of the AMA. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation

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SPECT Scans at the Amen Clinic – A New Phrenology?

Phrenology was a 19th century pseudoscience that claimed to associate brain areas with specific personality traits. It was based on palpating bumps on the skull and was totally bogus. New brain imaging procedures are giving us real insights into brain function in health and disease. They are still blunt instruments, and it is easy and tempting to over-interpret what we are seeing. In his book The New Phrenology William Uttal warns that “the excitement of these new research tools can lead to a neuroreductionist wild goose chase” and that we must be careful not to succumb to new versions of the old phrenology.

The Amen Clinics, founded by Daniel G. Amen, MD, offer SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scans to help diagnose and manage conditions such as attention deficit disorders (ADD), mood disorders, anxiety and panic disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), substance abuse, toxic exposure, brain trauma, memory problems, temper problems, and relationship and marital struggles.

The scans generate colored pictures of the brain that show “areas of your brain that work well, areas that work too hard, and areas that do not work enough.” They do not actually provide a diagnosis, but “must be placed in the context of a person’s life, including their personal history and mental state.” “The goal of treatment is to balance brain function, such as calm the overactive areas and enhance the underactive ones.” (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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Hormone Replacement Therapy

For years postmenopausal women were told that estrogen was safe. Now they’re being told that estrogen is dangerous. Women are confused. The media haven’t helped; they’ve only increased the confusion and created some myths. Alternative medicine offers the option of herbal remedies they say are safer than estrogen. Suzanne Somers says all of us (even men!) should be taking bioidentical hormones and adjusting our own doses according to how we feel. What’s a woman to do? What does the science really say?

Before the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) of 2002, there were two main reasons for prescribing hormone replacement therapy (HRT): it relieved perimenopausal symptoms like hot flashes, and it helped prevent osteoporosis and fractures. There was good reason to believe that estrogen might also reduce the risk of heart attacks, but very few doctors (if any) ever prescribed it for the sole purpose of reducing heart risks. And doctors were always aware that estrogen and progestins were powerful drugs and were not risk-free.

There was a time in the mid-20th century when estrogen was thought to be a fountain of youth and women were encouraged to start taking it at menopause and continue for the rest of their lives. That attitude quickly changed as we realized these hormones were associated with blood clots, strokes, and increased rates of some cancers. We also learned that unopposed estrogen caused uterine cancer, and women who still had their uterus had to take progestins along with their estrogen. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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The Business of Being Born

One of our readers asked for a critique of the movie “The Business of Being Born.” I guess my sex and specialty make me the best qualified to comment. I delivered over 200 babies as a family physician. I had two babies of my own (at age 37 and 39), one with intervention (forceps) and one 9-pounder who almost “fell” out before the obstetrician was ready.

“The Business of Being Born” is a movie about midwives, home births, and hospital births in America. It’s a sort of kinder, gentler “Sicko” with onscreen births, gooey, bloody newborns and fat naked women. The message of the movie is that for an uncomplicated pregnancy, natural home births with midwives are better and safer than medicalized hospital births with obstetricians. It’s strong on sound bites, emotional appeals, and superficial arguments, but weak on substance, depth, and scientific evidence for its claims.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Thoughts on Neuroplasticity

I recently read a fascinating book, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. He describes case histories and research indicating that the brain is far more malleable than we once thought. We used to think each function was localized to a small area of the brain and if you lost that area of brain tissue the function was gone forever. We once thought you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. Now we know better. 

Learning a new skill actually changes the structure and function of the brain, even into old age. If you exercise one finger, the area of the brain devoted to that finger enlarges. The old concept of dedicated brain areas for specific functions no longer holds. Areas of the cortex that normally process vision can learn to process totally different inputs such as hearing. This is what happens with blind people: their hearing skills are enhanced when new neural connections for hearing invade the disused visual cortex. They may not actually have better hearing acuity, but they have learned to pay more attention to auditory input and to use it to build up a representation of the world around them.

One of the more intriguing experiments he describes was in monkeys. When sensory input nerves to one arm were severed, the monkey stopped using the arm, even though the motor nerves were intact. When the good arm was put in a sling, the monkey started using the impaired arm again.  When both arms were deprived of sensory input, the monkey used both arms.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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