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The facts of the alternative medicine industry

People have been living on earth for about 250,000 years. For the past 5,000 healers have been trying to heal the sick. For all but the past 200, they haven’t been very good at it.

- Dr. Paul Offit

Twenty years is a long time in medicine. I celebrated my 20th pharmacy class reunion last weekend. Of course reunions are time to reflect back to our early years as pharmacists. Lots has changed. Much of the therapeutics I was taught is now obsolete. In 1993, HIV was a death sentence and there were only three, largely ineffective drugs available. Thanks to new drugs, HIV can now be managed like a chronic disease, and some of my colleagues have HIV-focused pharmacy practices. The same dramatic changes have occurred in fields like cancer and transplant medicine. And in some cases, the cause of disease has become more clear – my old textbooks make no mention of Helicobacter pylori as a cause of ulcers.

The practice of pharmacy has changed, too. On the positive side, pharmacists are working in new settings where they can focus on medication management, and not just dispensing prescriptions. Regulators are granting pharmacists the ability to take on new roles, and pharmacists are being compensated for more than simply “count, pour, lick and stick.” From that perspective, it’s a promising time to be a pharmacist. But there’s a much more disturbing side to the profession that’s emerging, too. Community (retail) pharmacy practice is under pricing and competitive pressure, and smaller pharmacies are being subsumed into big retailers where the pharmacy department is buried in the back – a loss leader to bring in patients, but hardly with a health-care focus. And most disturbingly, I see a move within retail pharmacy practice to leverage its professional credibility to sell all types of modern-day snake oil, ranging from detox kits and “cleanses” to dubious “food intolerance” testing. Homeopathic remedies (an elaborate placebo system of sugar pills) are increasingly found on pharmacy shelves, alongside real medicine. And don’t forget the enormous wall of vitamins that seems to get larger and larger. Yes, complementary and alternative medicine is booming, and pharmacy wants its share. Pharmacy regulators turn a blind eye. What do my pharmacy colleagues tell me? They’ll tell me it’s customer demand, and that they don’t recommend the quackery. To me, I see this trend as damaging the credibility of pharmacists in the eyes of the public and of other health professionals. (more…)

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What Doctors Feel

Doctors are often accused of being unfeeling technicians who treat their patients like cases of disease rather than people (think Dr. House). We were taught in medical school to remain detached, not get too close to patients, and not show our emotions. That attitude was epitomized in William Osler’s essay Aequanimitas. But doctors have feelings like anyone else, and no one is Spockishly rational. A patient might reasonably say “I don’t give a damn how my doctor feels as long as she gets me better,” but emotions affect everything we do, influencing clinical decisions and patient outcomes. This subject is investigated in a new book, What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, by Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine and an accomplished writer who has written extensively about her experiences in medicine.

She tells anecdotes from her training to give the reader a feel for what it was like to be in an extremely stressful situation with time pressure, conflicting duties, lack of sleep, life-or-death responsibilities, the highest expectations, and the impossibility of both getting everything done and doing each thing well. It reminded me of times in my own training when I desperately wanted to just somehow survive the day and not kill anyone. Medical residency can be almost as stressful as a war zone, and has its own PTSD victims, complete with flashbacks.

Part of the stress is being suddenly immersed in a new culture with its own tribal customs, slang, in-jokes, and a foreign language: “82WM w/PMH of CAD, CVA, MIx2, s/p 3V-CABG, c/o CP, SOB 2 wks PTA. BIBA s/p LOC. No F/C/N/V/D.” (more…)

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The Business of Baby and the Monkey Business of Margulis

A correspondent asked for my opinion of a new book by journalist Jennifer Margulis that is apparently getting a lot of attention in some circles: The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line. I got a copy from the library and read it. It was a painful experience. One of the customer reviews on the Amazon website accurately sums up my own reaction:

There is a great need for an incisive look at all sides of modern maternity care in the United States, because — let’s face it — we all know it’s not perfect. This, however, is not that book.

The author is a strong advocate of home birth, water birth, midwives, “embracing the pain to make you stronger,” “parents know better than doctors,” natural = good, and very early potty training. She thinks bathing a newborn is harmful. She questions the need for well baby checkups: she thinks they are mainly a gimmick to sell vaccines. She questions the (science-based) practice of giving newborns vitamin K and prophylactic eye drops. She is against the use of chemicals in general. She reports that Johnson’s Baby Wash contains “a host of unpronounceable chemicals, some of which are known toxins…and carcinogens.” She doesn’t seem to have grasped the basic principle of toxicology that the poison is in the dose. She is against formula, which she says is killing babies, and against disposable diapers because they contain chemicals and petroleum and because they can cause your child to become infertile. Her only evidence for “infertility” is one study showing that disposable diapers raise scrotal temperatures. Indeed, plastic underpants are probably warm.
(more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Obstetrics & gynecology, Vaccines

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Visiting a Victorian Duckpond

Ever heard of George Augustus Scott? Probably not. Although he was once touted as “Man of the Century,” he was actually a charlatan who sold electric hairbrushes. (No, an electric hairbrush isn’t a device that will brush your hair for you; it’s a hairbrush that supposedly produces a “permanent electric current” to cure everything from baldness to headaches.) He went on to sell magnetic corsets, electric rings for rheumatism, and sarsaparilla, advertised as the “GREATEST MEDICAL DISCOVERY of the AGE.” (You probably haven’t heard about that greatest discovery either.)

He and his many comrades in crime are profiled in a new book, The Medical Electricians: Dr. Scott and his Victorian Cohorts in Quackery by Robert K. Waits. You will find more quacks in this book than in any duck pond. It provides historical insights and reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun; similar charlatans continue to sell similar quack devices today, facilitated by the Internet and other media.

Electricity and magnetism sounded exciting to Victorian ears, but their properties were poorly understood. Great hopes were raised for medical applications. The opinions of experts varied. Priestly reported experiments from Italy and Germany in 1747-8 showing that a patient who held a vial of medicine while being electrified would get the same benefit as if he took the medicine by mouth. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, was persuaded that these reports were not true. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Energy Medicine, History

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“Sense and nonsense” about alternative medicine in USA Today

Sometimes, between blogging, a demanding day (and night) job doing surgery and science, and everything else, I embarrass myself. Sure, sometimes I embarrass myself by saying something that, in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. More often, I embarrass myself by letting things slide that I shouldn’t. For instance, when friends send me a prepublication copy of their books, I should damned well read them, don’t you think? So it was that Paul Offit sent me a copy of his latest book, which just hit the bookstores and online outlets this week, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, and I haven’t finished it. Oh, I’ve read a good chunk of it, but it’s not a huge book (around 335 pages); so I should have finished it by now, particularly since it’s quite good. My failure to properly read and plug the book aside, I’m glad to see that the book’s getting attention in a large media outlet, namely USA Today, in an article by Liz Szabo Book raises alarms about alternative medicine. There’s also a companion piece How to guard against a quack. I figure that the least I can do is to plug Dr. Offit’s book and the USA Today story in which he is featured, just as Harriet plugged his recent speaking appearance.

It’s also nice that Steve Novella and I were both interviewed. Now, excuse me while I get back to doing what I really should have had finished a month or two ago: Reading Dr. Offit’s excellent book.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements

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Progressive Mythology

In their book Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell counter allegations of a Republican war on science by pointing out how political progressives are equally anti-science. According to Berezow and Campbell, progressives hold opinions that are not based on physical reality, and claim that their beliefs are based on science even when they are not.

I try to stay out of politics, but anti-science attitudes should be discouraged wherever they are found, and the mythology of progressives as described by Berezow and Campbell is very much like the thinking of alternative medicine:

  1. Everything natural is good
  2. Everything unnatural is bad
  3. Unchecked science and progress will destroy us
  4. Science is only relative anyway

(more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Politics and Regulation

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Doves, Diplomats, and Diabetes

In the past I have criticized evolutionary medicine for its tendency to rely on unverifiable “Just-So Stories,” but a new book has helped me appreciate what the best kind of evolutionary thinking can contribute to our understanding of medicine. Doves, Diplomats, and Diabetes: A Darwinian Interpretation of Type 2 Diabetes and Related Disorders by Milind Watve investigates diabetes from an evolutionary perspective, suggesting how it might have originated, why it persisted, and how it is related to survival advantages. Watve develops well-reasoned hypotheses that can be tested by examining their expected consequences. He believes it is impossible to understand metabolism without understanding behavioral ecology, and he makes a good case.

A reassessment of the evidence concerning Type II diabetes (T2D) reveals a number of paradoxes. Elevated blood glucose is the defining feature of T2D but controlling it doesn’t prevent all the complications of diabetes, and it doesn’t appear that elevated blood sugar could produce all the pathological changes of diabetes.  Insulin resistance is believed to be central to a cluster of deadly diseases in humans, but in other animals it has no adverse effects on health and even increases lifespan. Studying diabetes from an evolutionary perspective can shed light on such paradoxes. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

I write about a lot of depressing subjects, and sometimes a change of pace is welcome. Mary Roach, billed as “America’s funniest science writer,” has followed up on her earlier explorations of cadavers (Stiff), sex (Bonk), the afterlife (Spook), and survival on spaceships (Packing for Mars) with a new book entitled Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

Forget all that mythology about diet, detoxification, and 10-year-old hamburger accretions in the bowel. The reality of human digestive physiology is far more interesting and has the extra-added attraction of being true. And in Roach’s hands, often howlingly funny.  She is a hands-on investigative reporter who is ready to try anything; among other adventures she inserts her entire arm in a cow’s stomach. Her highly entertaining odyssey takes her to Igloolik to eat narwhal skin, to a dog food tasting lab in Missouri, to Minnesota to observe a fecal transplant, and to strange and exotic outposts at the cutting edge of science, populated by colorful characters. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, History

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Worms, Germs, and Dirt: What Can They Teach Us About Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases?

Whipworms in the intestine

Whipworms in the intestine. Click to enlarge.

Humans evolved in an environment where they were exposed to animals, dirt, and a variety of pathogens and parasites. Our immune systems evolved to cope with that environment. Now most of us live in a different environment, with safe drinking water, flush toilets, food inspection, immunizations, and public sanitation. This means that we are far less likely than our ancestors to die of infectious diseases or to harbor intestinal worms. But it seems that the cleaner we get, the more likely we are to suffer from allergies and autoimmune diseases. One hypothesis is that our immune systems evolved to require early challenges by parasites and pathogens in order to develop properly. A hygienic environment fails to give our immune system the exercise it needs, resulting in imbalances and malfunctions.

The hygiene hypothesis was first proposed to explain observations like these:

  • Hay fever and allergies were less common in large families where children were presumably exposed to more infections through their siblings.
  • Polio attack rates were higher in high socioeconomic groups than in lower ones.
  • Allergies and many other diseases were less common in the developing world.

Investigation of these and other phenomena is contributing to a better understanding of the immune system, which is a good thing. At the same time, it has led some people to deliberately infect themselves with intestinal worms in an attempt to cure their allergies and autoimmune diseases, which may not be such a good thing. These treatments are far from ready for prime time, are risky, and they have a high yuck factor. The very idea of deliberately infecting yourself with worms is unpalatable, and finding wiggly live creatures in your stool or passing a 20 foot tapeworm are not generally considered to be pleasant experiences.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Epidemiology, Evolution

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Beyond Informed Consent: Shared Decision-Making

Happy New Year to all our readers! Today marks the completion of 5 years of SBM and the beginning of year 6. My contributions, at one a week, have now reached a total of 260. My first post on this blog, 5 years ago, was a review of an important book about science and alternative medicine, Snake Oil ScienceThis year I’d like to start with an important book about communicating medical science to patients, Critical Decisions,  by Peter A. Ubel, M.D.

I was wrong about informed consent. I thought informed consent was a matter of explaining the risks and benefits of treatments to patients so they could decide what they wanted to do.  That was naïve, simplistic, and misguided. Ubel’s book has radically changed my thinking about how doctors should interact with patients.

Paternalism in medicine is dead. Patient autonomy rules. We respect the right of patients to determine their own treatments, even if their choices seem unwise to us. Patients should do what they want. But there’s a problem: patients may not know what they really want. Emotions and unconscious and irrational forces influence their medical decisions. Preferences can change from one moment to the next, and they can shift with subtle changes in how treatments are described and how the issues are framed. Doctors need to develop a better understanding of what is going on in their patients’ minds, of how the way they present treatment options can inadvertently influence patients, and of how they can participate with patients in a process of shared decision-making. It’s possible to provide direction without paternalism. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Medical Ethics

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