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Cinnamon for diabetes? The consequences of “natural alternatives”

A customer strolled up to the counter one night when I was working in a retail pharmacy:

“My doctor says I have prediabetes. I don’t want to take any drugs. Do you have something natural I can use to cut my blood sugar?”

I looked at him in the eye, and pointed at his sizeable midsection. “Sir, if you’re at risk for diabetes, and you don’t want to take medication, the single best thing you can do for yourself is lose some weight.”

He grinned and asked, “Great – what supplement can I take to help me?”

This type of discussion occurs all the time. A patient has been assessed by their physician, and informed that they have a medical problem of some sort. The patient, reluctant to accept the physician’s evaluation, heads to the pharmacy for a second opinion. In some cases, the patient may question the physician’s advice: “All my physician wants to do is prescribe drugs.” Yet there’s a disconnect when it comes to strategies for management. More often than not, non-drug approaches are rejected out-of-hand (probably because the sample I speak with have already made the decision to buy something). And in those that are leery of medical management, there’s often a willingness to consider anything that’s available without a prescription – particularly if it’s perceived as “natural.” Natural products are gentle, safe, and effective, while medicine is thought of as unnatural, harsh, and potentially dangerous. This is the naturalistic fallacy, nothing more. Purveyors of supplements leverage the naturalistic fallacy into the marketing strategy of choice for almost all supplements and “alternative” medicines.  And it leads to bad health care decisions. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Book Reviews: “The Cure for Everything” and “Which comes first, cardio or weights?”

Do you have any skeptical blind spots? I’ve had a skeptical perspective for a long time (my teenage cynicism wasn’t just a phase) but the framework for my thinking has developed over years. Professionally, the blind spot that the pharmacy profession has towards supplements and alternatives to medicine was only clear after I spent some time working in a pharmacy with thriving homeopathy sales. In looking for some credible evidence to guide my recommendations, I discovered there was quite literally nothing to homeopathy. Once I discovered blogs like Respectful Insolence, the critical thinking process, and scientific skepticism, took off. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Naturopathy

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The HCG Diet: Yet another ineffective quick fix diet plan and supplement

I contribute biweekly to Science-Based Medicine and could easily devote every post to writing about weight loss supplements, and never run out of topics. As soon as one quick fix falls out of favour, another inevitably replaces it. Some wax and wane in popularity. And pharmacies don’t help the situation. I cringe every time I walk down the aisle where weight loss products and kits are located. Detox? Hoodia? The “fat blaster”?  Here are pharmacists, well educated and perfectly positioned to provide good advice to consumers, but standing behind a wall of boxes with ridiculous weight loss promises.  Yet pharmacists tell me that these products are not only sought out by customers, but they actually sell well. It’s a lost opportunity to provide good advice, and consumers pay the price.

Perhaps because consumers associate these products with pharmacies, I get regular questions about weight loss programs. I end up developing some degree of familiarity with many of them, if only to be able to credibly redirect away from some of the more harmful plans and approaches. It’s that philosophy that I used recently when I was asked about how to best to manage a “plateau” on the HCG diet. I’d never dispensed human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) before, but knew of its use for the treatment of infertility, where it promotes egg release. But weight loss? I couldn’t think of a mechanism for how HCG could promote weight loss. So I did some digging, and found a long, rich vein of pseudoscience that dates back decades. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals

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Dr. Oz and Green Coffee Beans – More Weight Loss Pseudoscience

I can’t keep up with Dr. Oz. Just when I thought the latest weight loss miracle was raspberry ketone, along comes another weight loss panacea. This time, it’s green coffee beans.

Eveyone knows Dr. Oz, now. Formerly a guest on Oprah, he’s got his own show which he’s built into what’s probably the biggest platform for health pseudoscience and medical quackery on daytime television. In addition to promoting homeopathy, he’s hosted supplement marketer Joe Mercola several times to promote unproven supplements. He has been called out before for  promoting ridiculous diet plans, and giving bad advice to diabetics. And don’t forget his failed attempt to actually demonstrate some science on his show, when he tested apple juice for arsenic which prompted a letter from the FDA about his methodology.  His extensive track record of terrible health advice is your caution not to accept anything he suggests at face value. So when the sign in front of my local pharmacy started advertising “Green coffee beans – as seen on Dr. Oz”, I tracked down the clip in question. The last time I saw Dr. Oz in action when when he had SBM’s own Steven Novella as a guest, where there was actually a exchange (albeit brief) about the scientific evidence for alternative medicine. Replace Dr. Novella with a naturopath, and you get this: (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy

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No, sugar pills won’t repel insects, and other consequences of regulating nonsense

As a group blog, Science-Based Medicine brings a variety of perspectives to issues of science in medicine. However we align around a few core principles which define what science-based medicine is, and how it should be practiced. One principle we emphasize is the importance of subjecting the evaluation of all health interventions and treatments to a single, science-based standard. One of the biggest successes of the alternative medicine industry, worldwide, has been the embedding of different regulatory standards for the evaluation and approval of so-called “non-drug” products such as supplements, herbal products, and non-scientific treatment systems like homeopathy or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The implications cannot be overstated: this different and lower standard is now so firmly entrenched in most health systems that few seem to question its rationale, or consider the consequences. As a practicing pharmacist I spent the first decade of my career working within this regulatory framework without ever stepping back to question why we regulate some products differently. I started reading, took the red pill, and here I am today. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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How do we avoid harming the elderly with prescription drugs?

Is the best medicine no medicine at all? Sometimes. My past posts have emphasized that the appropriateness of any drug depends on an evaluation of benefits and risks. There are no completely safe interventions, and no drug is free of any side effects. Our choice is ideally informed by high-quality data like randomized controlled trials, with lots of real-world experience so we understand a drug’s true toxicity. But when it comes down to a single patient, treatment decisions are personalized: we must consider individual patient characteristics to understand the expected benefits and potential harms. And in a world with perfect prescribing and drug use, harms wouldn’t be eliminated, but they would be minimized. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. There is ample evidence to show that the way in which prescription drugs are currently used causes avoidable harms to patients.

The art and science of medicine is a series of interventions to improve health. In making these treatment decisions, we strive to minimize iatrogenic harm — that is, harms caused by the intervention itself. High up on the list of of avoidable harms are adverse events related to drug treatments. Audits of adverse events are astonishing and shameful. Studies suggest 28% of events are avoidable in the community setting, and 42% are avoidable in long-term care settings.  That’s a tremendous amount of possible harm resulting from treatments that were prescribed to help. And the group that is harmed the most? The elderly. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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Choosing Wisely: Five things Pharmacists and Patients Should Question

Is the health care spending tide turning? Unnecessary medical investigations and overtreatment seems to have entered the public consciousness to an extent I can’t recall in the past. More and more, the merits of medical investigations such as mammograms and just this week, PSA tests are being being widely questioned. It’s about time. Previous attempts to critically appraise overall benefits and consequences of of medical technologies seem to have died out amidst cries of “rationing!” But this time, the focus has changed – this isn’t strictly a cost issue, but a quality of care issue.  It’s being championed by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIM) under the banner Choosing Wisely with the support of several medical organizations. The initiative is designed to promote a candid discussion between patient and physician: “Is this test or procedure necessary?”. Nine organizations are already participating, represent nearly 375,000 physicians. Each group developed its own list based on the following topic: Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question. Here are the lists published to date:

ABIM has partnered with Consumer Reports to prepare consumer-focused material as well, so patients can initiate these discussions with their physicians. How did this all come to be? A candid editorial from Howard Brody in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010:

In my view, organized medicine must reverse its current approach to the political negotiations over health care reform. I would propose that each specialty society commit itself immediately to appointing a blue-ribbon study panel to report, as soon as possible, that specialty’s “Top Five” list. The panels should include members with special expertise in clinical epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy, and evidence-based appraisal. The Top Five list would consist of five diagnostic tests or treatments that are very commonly ordered by members of that specialty, that are among the most expensive services provided, and that have been shown by the currently available evidence not to provide any meaningful benefit to at least some major categories of patients for whom they are commonly ordered. In short, the Top Five list would be a prescription for how, within that specialty, the most money could be saved most quickly without depriving any patient of meaningful medical benefit.

Health care professionals are, in general, self-regulating professions. That is, governments entrust them to set the standards for their profession and regulate members, in the public interest. Consequently, attempts by payors of services (i.e., government and insurers) to guide medical practice are usually met with substantial resistance. No-one wants insurers interfering in the patient-physician relationship. That’s why it’s exciting to see this initiative in place -it’s being driven by the medical profession itself.

As a pharmacist I’m also a member of a self-regulating profession, one in which the public places a considerable degree of trust in. In order to maintain the public’s confidence, it is essential that the pharmacy profession maintain the highest professional and ethical standards, and do its part to reduce unnecessary testing and investigations. With this in mind, I’ve taken up Brody’s challenge and developed my own list of Five things Pharmacists and Patients Should Question. While eliminating them may not provide the most savings to patients, they are pharmacy-based, widely offered, and offer little to no benefit to consumers. Here are my top five candidates: (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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The drug expiry date: A necessary safety measure, or yet another Big Pharma conspiracy?

Consider this scenario: You’re in good health and take no prescription drugs. You use the following remedies occasionally:

  • Excedrin for the rare migraine
  • Arnica 30CH for bumps and bruises
  • Echinacea capsules, when you feel a cold coming on

Today you look in your cupboard, and notice all three products expired last year. Would you still consider taking any of them? Why or why not?

Your answer is probably influenced by a number of factors, including perceptions of risk and benefit. I’ve encountered patients who believe that drugs are less active as they near the expiration date, and others who see expiry dates solely as marketing ploy from Big Pharma. Few understand how they’re calculated.

Over the past few months I’ve written several posts on different aspects of drug development and testing, including drug interactions, fillers and excipients in drug products, the equivalence testing of generic drugs, and the management of drug allergies. I’ve done this for two reasons. The first is to develop a SBM-oriented resource for common questions and misconceptions about the mechanics of modern medicines. The second, less obvious reason for these posts has been to illustrate the serious credibility gaps with CAM therapies. Largely because of a lax regulatory framework, the CAM industry has ballooned into a multi-billion dollar market without answering basic questions that should be asked of any supplement or drug, “alternative” or otherwise. What’s not well known to consumers, but is glaringly obvious to SBM advocates, is that CAM largely ignores issues of  pharmacology: understanding how a chemical substance, once consumed, behaves in the body. It’s critical to scientific medicine, but an unnecessary step for CAM, where there’s no need to determine if a product has a beneficial biological effect before selling it. Fundamental tests in medicine, like the identification and isolation of an active ingredient, or understanding dose-effect relationships, are simply ignored. As David Gorski and Mark Crislip have pointed out over the past week, we have a reality bias at SBM.  And this bias is equally jarring when it comes to considering expiry dates for products: real drugs, and also CAM.

(more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals

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Gold mine or dumpster dive? A closer look at adverse event reports

All informed health decisions are based on an evaluation of expected risks and known benefits. Nothing is without risk. Drugs can provide an enormous benefit, but they all have the potential to harm. Whether it’s to guide therapy choices or to ensure patients are aware of the risks of their prescription drugs, I spend a lot of time discussing the potential negative consequences of treatments. It’s part of my dialogue with consumers: You cannot have an effect without the possibility of an adverse effect. And even when used in a science-based way, there is always the possibility of a drug causing either predictable or idiosyncratic harm.

An “adverse event” is an undesirable outcome related to the provision of healthcare. It may be a natural consequence of the underlying illness, or it could be related to a treatment provided. The use of the term “event” is deliberate, as it does not imply a cause: it is simply associated with an intervention. The term “adverse reaction,” or more specifically “adverse drug reaction,” is used where a causal relationship is strongly suspected. Not all adverse events can be be causally linked to health interventions. Consequently, many adverse events associated with drug treatments can only be considered “suspected” adverse drug reactions until more information emerges to suggest the relationship is likely to be true.

Correlation fallacies can be hard to identify, even for health professionals. You take a drug (or, say, are given a vaccine). Soon after, some event occurs. Was the event caused by the treatment? It’s one of the most common questions I receive: ”Does drug ‘X’ cause reaction ‘Y’?” We know correlation doesn’t equal causation. But we can do better than dismissing the relationship as anecdotal, as it could be real. Consider an adverse event that is a believed to be related to drug therapy: (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Pharmaceuticals

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Systemic Enzyme Therapy

One of the recurrent themes in alternative medicine is the practice of simplifying complex medical conditions, and then offering up equally simple solutions which are positioned as still being within the realm of science. This approach allows the practitioner to ignore all of the complexity and difficulty of practicing real medicine, yet offer nostrums that, on first glance, can sound legitimate. Science-y, even.

I’ve discussed this before in non-science-based approaches to food intolerances, whether it’s using clinically useless IgG blood tests, or declaring the universal dietary enemy to be gluten. David Gorski elaborated on the same theme just a few days ago in the context of cancer treatment, contrasting the simplistic views of alternative medicine purveyors with the facts of cancer research. Cancer is stunningly complex – each of the hundreds of different variants of the disease. I’m always amazed when I speak with oncologists about how treatment regimens have been established. They describe how the results of dozens of clinical trials, led by different trial groups around the world have each contributed to establishing the current “best” regimens for each cancer: the appropriate drugs, doses, intervals and treatment intensities. Good evidence speaks all languages, and as new data emerges, practices change quickly to build upon whatever new evidence has emerged. The complexity of treatments continue to increase. Overlay the genetic and genomic complexity David described, and you get a sense of the challenges (and opportunities) cancer researchers face in order for science continue to improve outcomes for patients with cancer.

So it’s a bit of a shock when you shift your attention to the alternative medicine “literature”, where simple solutions abound. One that’s popular among patients I speak with, particularly those with European backgrounds, is the use of what are called systemic enzymes – enzymes, consumed orally, with the intent of whole-body effects. These products are not used as part of “conventional” medicine but are popular supplements recommended by alternative practitioners. I was recently asked about a product called Wobenzym N, a product with German roots which is advertised with the following claims [PDF]: (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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