The worst part of flying is the take off and landing. Not that I am nervous about those parts of the trip, it is that I am all electronic. Once I have to turn off my electronic devices, all I am left with is my own thoughts or what is in the seat pocket in front of me. Since there is nothing to be gained from quiet introspection, I am stuck with either the in-flight magazine or SkyMall. I usually choose the latter. SkyMall, for those of you who do not fly, is a collection of catalogs bound in one volume. I have occasionally purchased products found in SkyMall and thumb through it with mild interest.
This time one product caught my eye, the Aculife home acupuncture/acupressure device. I had never noticed the ‘health’-related products in SkyMall before, usually looking for electronic gadgets that I really do not need. I was curious. How many other products besides Aculife are in the catalogue? According to the interwebs, about 100,000,000 Americans fly every year and well over half a billion people world wide. A lot of people can potentially look at SkyMall, including the occasional skeptic.
Life and medicine generate facts and experiences that require conceptual frameworks that aid in understanding. It is no good have a pile of facts if they cannot be understood within a broader understanding.
The practice of Infectious Diseases, while certainly aided by understanding anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry and the other sciences that form the core of medicine (referred to in Medical School as the basic sciences), gains a broader appreciation from the concepts of evolution. Infectious Diseases, at its most fundamental level, is applied evolution, and understanding evolution often adds greater insight into infectious diseases. Me find bug, me kill bug, me go home may be my motto, but it is meant in jest.
There have been papers or books that have added conceptual frameworks to my understanding of the natural world and medicine. Besides evolution, there was Observations on Spiraling Empiricism a classic that all health care providers should read, as it outlines the cognitive errors we all make in prescribing medications; I have discussed this article before.
There is The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. So often the explanation of why something happens is a shrug of the shoulders; feces occurs. The book formalized my understanding that much of what happens is random and without cause. The challenge in medicine is trying find a pattern in the randomness of life upon which to base a diagnosis. It is equally important to recognize when patterns are not there. All too often what is seen as a pattern is our imposing structure on what are random events. Or maybe that really is a bunny in the clouds. Clinical study results often occur by chance and having a significant ‘P’ value may still be due to randomness if the study is measuring nonsense.
It is probably of no surprise to anyone who has read my blog entries, I am a proponent of vaccines. They give the most bang for the infection prevention buck, and many of the childhood illnesses covered by the vaccine are now so rare that many physicians, even in Infectious Diseases, have never taken care of cases of measles or mumps or German measles, etc. It is a remarkable triumph of modern medicine. Of course, the decline of infectious diseases is always multifactorial: good nutrition, understanding of diseases epidemiology, and good hygiene all have contributed to the decline of many diseases, vaccine preventable or not, The application of science has resulted in an almost inconceivable decline in contagions that have killed and injured millions.
It is always better to prevent an illness than to have to treat it. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Even those who erroneously believe that standard vaccines are not effective and/or dangerous understand that it is better to prevent illness with some sort vaccine. But rather than use an effective vaccine, they choose, instead, other options. Like homeopathic vaccines. (more…)
I have been involved in infection control and in what is now called quality for my career. Since infection control issues can occur in any department, my job involves being on numerous quality related committees (Medical Executive, Pharmacy and Therapeutics, etc) where I have witnessed or participated in what seems to be innumerable quality initiatives.
It always gripes my cookies when someone says “Get your own house in order,” because that is a person who evidently is arguing from ignorance. Since To Err is Human was published at the turn of the century, the hospital systems in Portland and across the country have invested significant time and money into quality improvement. Do a Pubmed on ‘Hand Hygiene Compliance’ in the last decade; there are over 400 references. Or ‘deep venous thrombosis prophylaxis’ — over 5,000 references. Or ‘ventilator associated pneumonia prevention’ — over 750 references. Pick a topic related to safety and quality and search the literature, and you will find a remarkable amount of research into the best ways to decrease morbidity and mortality in the hospital.
Hospitals, at least those in my city, take safety and quality very seriously, and by applying the results of these studies, there has been a marked decrease in mortality and morbidity in my institutions. Compared to historical controls, we estimate we have, in the last 2 years, prevented about 600 hospital acquired infections and over 200 deaths. (more…)
In the last post on acupuncture, I noted that the University of Maryland offered reflexology along with other supplements, and complementary and alternative medicine (SCAMs). I was uncertain as to the particulars of this SCAM, and this post is a result of those investigations.
Although messy in reality, science is a tool that gives us an idea as to how the real world functions. People will observe some aspect of nature, often for a lifetime, and from those observations discover a pattern in the data. Tycho Brahe spent a life carefully measuring the orbits of the planets; the data was used later by Kepler to determine that the planets orbit in an ellipse with the sun at one of the foci. If you have knowledge of the history of science, you realize what an amazing feat this represents, both in the measurement of the orbits and the analysis of the data. Careful observation, analysis of the data, then conclusions.
This is in contrast to SCAMs, where so many of the interventions are discovered by revelation, and then developed independently of data and observation. Palmer and chiropractic, von Peczely and iridology, Usui and reiki are examples. These geniuses discovered aspects of existence unseen by anyone before or after.
The bar on this blog is set high. The entries are often complete, with no turn left unstoned. Yet, not every topic needs the full monty with every post. The blog has extensive evaluations on many topics, and new medical literature doesn’t require another complete analysis. Many new articles add incrementally to the literature and their conclusions need to be inserted into the conversation of this blog, like a car sliding into heavy traffic. My eldest son just received his driver’s license, and car metaphors are on my mind. As are crash metaphors and insurance metaphors.
So in response to this need, a need only recognized by me, I give you Short Attention Span SCAM. Occasionally I will summarize a few recent studies and their key points as they relate to prior posts at SBM.
Humans love to find patterns in the world. Sometimes patterns exist, sometimes they are imaginary. Sometimes you can see a pattern that may be interesting and ignore its significance. As a resident I used to say that anyone who smokes three packs of cigarettes a day has to be schizophrenic, it was meant more as a joke, when, in fact, it was later discovered that tobacco helps ameliorate the symptoms of schizophrenia. I need to pay more attention.
Part of my job is to look for patterns as a key to the patients diagnosis. Diseases and pathogens tend to (more or less) cause reproducible signs and symptoms and looking for that pattern is often the most helpful clue towards finding the diagnosis. Of course things are never as easy as one would like, as you have to consider whether you are seeing common manifestations of a common disease, uncommon manifestations of a common disease, common manifestations of a uncommon disease and, the hardest, uncommon manifestations of an uncommon disease. When I have a complex or uncertain cause, I explicitly run through that, and other, litanies so I do not miss a unusual diagnosis.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) has, at least to my way of thinking, two patterns. I see the occasional CFS patient in clinic and, I hope, pay attention to their disease patterns. I keep in mind I may be seeing a pattern that does not exist, but looking for disease patterns is what doctors are trained to do.
I realize that the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) review of acupuncture has already been covered by Drs. Gorski and Novella. But my ego knows no bounds; so I thought I would add my two cents, especially since this review, more than any paper I have read, generates a deep sense on betrayal.
There was a time when I believed my betters. Then the Annals of Internal Medicine had their absolutely ghastly series on SCAMS, the publication of which was partly responsible for interest in the topic. Since that series of articles, I have doubt whenever I read an Annals article. When a previously respected journal panders completely to woo, they lose all respectability. Sure, the editors that were responsible for that travesty are long gone, but the taint remains. I tell my kids that once a trust has been violated, it is difficult to get it back. The Annals has permanently lost my trust, I am afraid.
But we will always have Paris. I mean the NEJM. The NEJM is the premier medical journal. Just because an article is published in the NEJM doesn’t mean it’s right; the results of clinical trials are always being superseded by new information. But the article has supposedly been rigorously peer reviewed. Its like Harvard and… Oops, Bad example. Harvard, as we have seen, has feet of clay, and so, evidently, does the The New England Journal of Medicine.
Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire, the editors of the NEJM have fallen into the depths of nonsense with this one.
Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.
We have a saying in medicine that you can’t kill a jerk. Not that we try to kill anyone, but that particularly unpleasant individuals, rife with psychopathology, survive whatever illness comes their way. The corollary is that particularly nice people are prone to having horrible diseases with unpleasant outcomes. We all know intellectually that it is not true, but there is an ongoing feeling in health care providers that somehow patient personality determines the consequences of their diseases. As an aside, I am often left with the explanation for patients that the reason for their odd infection comes down to bad luck. Everyone responds something to the effect that “Typical. I get all the bad luck.” I have never had a patient say, “That’s odd, I am usually so lucky.”
On the question of nurture versus nature, raising two children has convinced me of the relative lack of importance of nurture in the personalities of my children. While abusive/pathologic environments will certainly lead to pathologic personalities, for the average child raised in middle class America I can’t help but think that, to quote Popeye, “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam.” I expect to be schooled in the comments on that subject. Yes, I read the Blank Slate and have some understanding of the literature. And yet. My kids, my friends kids. I watch them grow in what is (and isn’t) a similar environment and end up with diverse personalities that often appear present before they can speak. I am well aware of the multiple logical fallacies that lead to that conclusion. Parenthood and medical practice (where people seem to do the same damn stupid things over and over) have lead me to the conclusion that free will is mostly a myth and we are mostly programmed to behave the way we do. Discuss. It is not the main point of the post, but my bias.
There are two topics about which I am a crank. The first, as you might have guessed, is alternative medicine. The other is pharmaceutical reps. Drug companies are somewhat schizophrenic. They have amazing scientists who invent drugs that treat an astounding array of diseases. Then, they take these drugs and turn them over to marketing, to be sold with all the enthusiasm and truthiness of a late night infomercial.
In the spirit of openness, I will say that I have not talked to a drug rep in 20 years. As far as industry supported gifts and food, I have not taken a pen or eaten pizza from industry in almost 30 years, since I was a fourth year medical student. I have accepted one gift over the years. Years ago, when the Pfizer rep left, he sent me Fleets enema with a Unasyn sticker on it. I still have it in my office, unused. But you never know when it might come in handy.
Being an absolutist about industry gifts does have downsides. It is distracting to sit in an auditorium filled with the smell of pizza and not eat any; somehow the PB&J I bring with me doesn’t smell as sweet. Administration has received one letter complaining about me that was ostensibly from an employee, but curiously was printed from a windows folder that had the same name as the levofloxacin rep. Just a coincidence, I am sure.