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Lyme disease—who is credible?

I recently had a pleasant, brief email exchange with Kris Newby, the producer of the latest medical advocacy pic, Under Our Skin. There’s been a number of similar movies lately, mostly about quacky cancer therapies. This one is apparently much better made, and follows the controversy regarding “chronic” Lyme disease.

I’d heard an interview about the movie on Diane Rehm, and was rather unnerved by it. It sounded like a typical I-drank-the-Kool-Aid-now-I’m-gonna-make-a-movie kind of thing. Still, I haven’t written about it, because I haven’t seen the movie. That’s going to change. Kris is being kind enough to send me a copy, despite my warning that I’m very likely to pan it.

Anyway, in our conversation, she recommended that I check out a particular piece in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Before I go into the significance of this paper, let me give you a little background. Stick with me here, I’ll make it brief. (more…)

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Primary care challenge

In this space we’ve read about the efforts of “alternative” practitioners such as naturopaths to gain the moniker “primary care provider”.  I’ve been wondering a bit about this.  I’m a primary care physician.  Specialists in internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine provide the bulk of primary care in the U.S. They attend a 4-year medical school, complete a 3-4 year residency, take their specialty board, and then work as experts in the screening, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of common diseases.

So, what I’d like to do is give you a typical scenario from an internal medicine or family medicine practice.  It’s a simple one, one you might see on Step II of the USMLE boards or on a shelf exam for an internal medicine rotation.  I’d like to offer alternative practioners, especially naturopaths, an opportunity to show how they would approach the clinical scenario so that we can see what kind of primary care they provide.

Yes, every patient and every situation is different, but there are some general ways to approach health and disease based on the evidence.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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Modern shamanism—naturopathy for hypertension

I’m a primary care physician. What I, other internists, pediatricians, and family medicine docs do is prevent and treat common diseases. When we get to diseases that require more specialized care, we refer to our specialist colleagues. There is a movement afoot to broaden the role of naturopaths to make them primary care doctors. The big difference between naturopaths and real primary care physicians (PCPs) is that naturopaths haven’t gone to medical school, completed a post-graduate residency program, and taken their specialty boards. Why is this important? If a naturopath wants to be a PCP, then they must provide the same services as other PCPs. They do not. What, you don’t believe me? The thing is, naturopaths have an incorrect understanding of human biology and do not understand how this is applied in a science-based fashion to prevent and treat human disease.

Naturopathic “physicians” claim that “the human body has an innate healing ability” and that they “teach their patients to use diet, exercise, lifestyle changes and cutting edge natural therapies to enhance their bodies’ ability to ward off and combat disease.”

I must admit that I don’t get it. As a primary care physician (the real kind) I talk to my patients every day about diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. I’m not sure what “natural therapies” are—all of the medications that I prescribe are “natural”. What is the opposite of natural? Unnatural? Supernatural?
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Medical students actively recruited for CAM

Here at Science-Based Medicine we’ve been getting a lot of letters from medical students.  This is a good thing and a bad thing.   I’m glad people see us a a resource for SBM, but I’m unhappy that medical students: 1) need us; 2) don’t have someone to approach on campus.  Let’s explore some of the more subtle ways cult medical practices infiltrate medical education.

Outpatient Rotations

In order to give all of their students experience in outpatient medicine, most med schools must reach out to the community.  Sure, some med schools have big enough clinics to support an experience for all of their students, but that’s the minority.  For their internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine rotations, med students often spend time at private doctors’ offices.  These offices are minimally vetted, and I’d venture to guess that the vetting does not include checking for non-standard practices.   In fact, schools are so desperate for spots, that almost any office will do.  It’s good for students to see how medicine is practiced in the “real world” but that real world often involves cult medicine practices.  Along the same lines, many practitioners are not up to date on the most recent best practices.  I remember a family doc I worked with who used to give huge doses of intramuscular steroids to people for seasonal allergies.  This isn’t the best idea, but I was a student. Who was I to tell him how to practice medicine?

We don’t police our colleagues very effectively—we have surrendered that duty largely to the courts.  However, if doctors want a medical school affiliation, it seems a small price to allow the school to come in and see if the office practices medicine  according to the standard of care.  In addition to checking for the most minimal quality standards, it would rule out docs who are offering voodoo in place of medicine.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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The kindest cut?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections is the proper use of condoms. That being said, it’s not the only way to prevent STI’s. Abstinence is one way, but it involves an amputation of sorts—the removal of a critical human behavior. Another amputation (of sorts) that prevents STIs is circumcision. Male circumcision has been found in several good studies to reduce the rate of HIV transmission, and now a study out of Uganda shows a significant decrease in rates of genital herpes infections (HSV-2), human papilloma virus (HPV) infection (the strains that cause penile, cervical, and anal cancer), but no decrease in syphilis infection.

This study complements the our knowledge on the benefits of circumcision to prevent disease. The authors emphasize that circumcision alone is not sufficient, but may be a useful adjunct to prevent serious STIs. In fact, STI’s tend to travel together, and ulcerative diseases such as herpes increase transmission of HIV.
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How not to think

Thankfully, I don’t receive all that much blog-related mail.  But this weekend I received several communications about a piece in popular liberal blog.  The piece is (ostensibly) about Lyme disease, which coincidentally happens to be one of the topics of my first post here at SBM.  In fact, I’ve written about Lyme disease a number of times, and Dr. Novella has a very good summary of the controversy at one of his other blogs.  Since we’ve discussed this so many times, I won’t be reviewing the entire controversy, but looking at this particular blog post to examine how our personal experiences and errors in reasoning can distort our view of reality.

The topic of Lyme disease has come up recently in the press, and as the weather improves, cases in the northeastern U.S. should start to increase soon.  Just as a reminder, so-called “chronic” Lyme disease is not Lyme disease at all.  Lyme disease can have early and late manifestations, none of which correspond to the vague, protean symptoms labeled as “chronic” by some.  The disease is often diagnosed without resort to objective evidence, such as reliable, positive lab tests.  But let’s look at the blog post in question and see what’s there.

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Prevention—science vs. nonsense

There are many ways in which cult medicine believers try to insinuate themselves into the health care system.  As Dr. Gorski has pointed out, “prevention” is one of their metaphorical feet in the door.  The cult medicine literature often says things like, “mainstream medicine is fine for treating acute illness, but what we do is prevention.” What they often leave out is the question of what “prevention” means, what the data on prevention is, and how to properly approach prevention.  It’s likely that one of my co-editors will touch on this topic in a bit more detail, but let me give you an introduction to the topic of prevention.

Definitions

Prevention is usually divided into three types: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary prevention  refers to the prevention of diseases and conditions before their biological onset.  Examples of our most successful primary prevention interventions are clean water/sewerage and, ironically, vaccination.  I say “ironically” of course because so many of the altmed folks who talk about prevention are anti-vaccine.

Secondary prevention refers to the search for diseases that have not yet progressed to the point of causing overt disease, and intervening to prevent overt disease.  This  includes things like Pap smears, which look for early cervical cancers (which could have been primarily prevented by vaccination), mammography, which looks for early breast tumors,  and colonoscopy, which looks for early colonic neoplasms.  Secondary prevention is sometimes used synonymously with “screening”.

Tertiary prevention refers to the prevention of progression of and complications from existing disease.  For example, retinal and foot exams in diabetics prevent blindness and amputation very effectively.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Tom Harkin’s War on Science (or, “meet the new boss…”)

This was cross-posted at White Coat Underground, despite the topic having been covered by Dr. Gorski yesterday. The topic is important enough that many of us in the medical blogosphere are going to be talking about this.

Remember when President Obama said something about returning science to it’s rightful place? Well, our new president has a real tough climb ahead of him. The previous administration shoved science aside for political expediency and religious ideology. Now, forces in the president’s own party are trying to insert their own quasi-religious beliefs into health care reform, leaving science in a whole different place altogether.

Here’s the deal. Some years back, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) helped set up the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The whole idea of setting up such an agency is a bit quixotic—after all, the National Institutes of Health already study health science. As my colleagues and I have written many times before, the very idea of the agency seems ridiculous. Many, many studies have been funded which fail basic tests of plausibility and ethical propriety. Also, a huge percentage of the studies funded fail to ever publish their results. Still, some studies have been published, and more often than not, they find that the “alternative” modality being studied fails to behave better than placebo. That’s probably the sole redeeming quality of the agency, but not enough to keep it open, as these studies could have been done under the auspices of the NIH.

It turns out that Senator Harkin agrees with me on one point: NCCAM is failing to validate many alternative modalities. The difference is that I find it heartening and Harkin finds it disturbing:

“One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short. It think quite frankly that in this center and in the office previously before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving.”(from last week’s hearings, time marker approx. 17:20)

Well, at least he’s honest. He comes right out and bemoans the fact that science hasn’t upheld his quasi-religious medical beliefs. He just doesn’t get it. If you choose to investigate a scientific question, you have to be prepared for “bad news”. You don’t get to decide the outcome before the fact.

But Harkin makes his goals very clear, from his prepared statement, to the “experts” from whom he took testimony.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Health care and the Stimulus Plan

In my last post, I told you a little story about using science- and evidence-based medicine to improve health care.    The focus was primarily on preventing an iatrogenic illness, namely intravenous catheter infections.  A researcher came up with a plausible idea for an intervention, studied it, and found it to be successful—the intervention was science-based in that it was proposed based on sound scientific principles; and it is now evidence-based, in that we now know that this intervention prevents infections.

But we don’t really have an easily accessible repository of evidence-based interventions.  Every field has its own standards, its own literature, and its up to each individual practitioner to interpret the data on their own.

There are some data bases, such as the USPSTF which gives data for preventative services, and PIER, a service of the American College of Physicians, which gives information on specific diseases and includes interpretations of evidence.  There’s also the Cochrane Collaborative, which helps evaluate evidence.   But there is no single “go-to” site for these things, and while we follow evidence-based guidelines in much of our care, there are many times when evidence isn’t just hard to find but is actually unavailable.

Give our “evidence gap”, I was heartened to see this story in the New York Times.   The Times reports that the economic stimulus bill will include over a billion dollars to fund research into medical evidence.  This is a good thing, but it’s bound to be controversial.  But I’ve mentioned before that we need to spend money to improve our medical infrastructure, and this could be a step in the right direction.

Much of what we do in medicine is science-based, and much of it has evidence to support it, but some does not.  There are plenty of open questions about how we practice medicine, and in order to deliver safe, quality care, we need answers. One example was explored by Dr. Gorski earlier.  In another example, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared surgical and non-surgical therapy for arthritis of the knee.  Surgery made logical, scientific sense, but it had never  been carefully compared to non-surgical therapy.  The study showed that conservative therapy, which is cheaper and less invasive, was just as effective as surgery.  This doesn’t mean that surgery will never help, but it is strong evidence that we should treat arthritis of the knee more conservatively. Studies like this aren’t free, but if their results are reliable and repeatable, they may save us a lot of money and possible surgical complications.

So the idea of investing more money into comparing medical treatments makes sense, both scientifically and economically.  Now there’s a lot of predictable objections about this; people are worried about physician autonomy and government interference.

As Congress translated the idea into legislation, it became a lightning rod for pharmaceutical and medical-device lobbyists, who fear the findings will be used by insurers or the government to deny coverage for more expensive treatments and, thus, to ration care.

In addition, Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators complained that the legislation would allow the federal government to intrude in a person’s health care by enforcing clinical guidelines and treatment protocols.

I’m not sure that the legislation says anything about enforcing clinical guidelines, but to be fair, there is some implication along those lines.

And so what?  Right now, my patients’ insurance programs do exactly the same thing—if I prescribe an angiotensin receptor blocker for blood pressure control, I’m going to be asked to justify why I am giving this rather than the cheaper and as-effective ACE-inhibitor.  The answer is usually that the ACE-I caused side-effects, but the question isn’t stupid.  Why should an insurer pay more when an equally effective, cheaper alternative is available?

If we have more evidence to work with, we can continue to make even better decisions regarding care.  It may seem intrusive, but it’s not very different from what we do already.  And honestly, I’d like to know if I’m more likely to get relief of my lumbar radiculopathy from surgery or from conservative therapy.  I will not be offended in the least if my surgeon got a call from my insurer asking if surgery was really my best option, as long as the answer was supported by good evidence.

It rings rather hollow when people protest against gaining more knowledge.  Libertarian types complain that this will inevitably lead to government interference (and it might, and maybe it should) but to ignore the need for evidence is absurd.  We, as physicians and patients, need more knowledge, not less, and we shouldn’t be afraid of where the data lead.  Once we have the data, we can sit down for a good, heated discussion about what to do with it.  But putting our collective heads in the sand is probably not a useful response.

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Keeping ‘em alive

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the frequent complaints I hear about science-based medicine is that it is dangerous.  Of course, it’s true—so is riding in a train, but it sure beats walking.  And that’s the danger of this particular fallacy—yes, medicine is a sharp tool, but it’s also an effective tool, so we must use it properly.  And this is where the tools of evidence- and science-based medicine can give us a hand.

The potential harms of modern medicine must be approached carefully.  If they are ignored or approached in an ineffective way, we’ll miss an opportunity to save lives.  This comment from my other blog is typical:

You asked if so-called traditional Chinese medicine has ever eradicated any diseases. Well, yes. It pretty much eradicated one that is in epidemic numbers in the U.S. and most of the developed world: Iatrogenic disease.

This is wrong is so many ways.  The definition of “iatrogenic” is difficult.  The traditional definition is “adverse effects of medical treatment or advice.”  I suppose one could broaden this to include failure to give proper advice, as inaction by a physician has similar consequences to action, but perhaps that is a discussion for another day.

The way in which this is truly wrong is the false dichotomy. Yes, medical errors would be reduced to zero if we didn’t treat people, but the consequences would be rather dramatic.  Our goal should not be to abandon modern medicine because it sometimes causes harm.  Our goal is to reduce iatrogenic illness in a science-based way.

Strangely enough, this is being done.  A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine (effectively discussed here) described a study in which surgical checklists reduced errors.  This study was based on earlier work by Peter Provonost of Johns Hopkins, the subject of a terrific piece in the New Yorker.  (Related commentary here.)
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