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Science-Based Medicine Meets Medical Ethics

There are four main principles in medical ethics:

  •  Autonomy
  •  Beneficence
  •  Non-maleficence
  •  Justice

Autonomy means the patient has the right to consent to treatment or to reject it. Autonomy has to be balanced against the good of society. What if a patient’s rejection of treatment or quarantine allows an epidemic to spread? Beneficence means we should do what is best for the patient. Non-maleficence means “First do no harm.” Justice applies to conundrums like how to provide kidney dialysis and organ transplants equitably in a society that can’t afford to treat everyone with expensive high-tech treatments or where the rich can afford better treatment than the poor.

Medical ethicist Ronald Munson has written a fascinating book entitled The Woman Who Decided to Die: Challenges and Choices at the Edges of Medicine. His clinical vignettes vividly illustrate the difficult decisions that must be made when science-based medicine runs up against the harsh practical reality of ethical dilemmas. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Medical Ethics

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Cashing In On Fear: The Danger of Dr. Sears

I generally know what’s coming next when a parent asks about altering their child’s vaccine schedule: “I was reading Dr. Sears….”

Dr. Sears is a genius. No, not in an Albert Einstein or Pablo Picasso kind of way. He’s more of an Oprah or a Madonna kind of genius. He’s a genius because he has written a book that capitalizes on the vaccine-fearing, anti-establishment mood of the zeitgeist. The book tells parents what they desperately want to hear, and that has made it an overnight success.

Dr. Robert Sears is perhaps one of the best-known pediatricians in the country. The youngest son of Dr. Bill Sears, the prolific parent book writer and creator of AskDrSears.com, Dr. Bob has become the bane of many a pediatrician’s existence. He has contributed to his family dynasty by co-authoring several books, adding content to the family website, and making myriad TV appearances to offer his sage advice. But Dr. Bob is best known for his best-selling The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for your Child. This book, or at least notes from it, now accompanies many confused and concerned parents to the pediatrician’s office. Parents who have been misled by the onslaught of vaccine misinformation and fear-mongering feel comforted and supported by the advice of Dr. Sears, who assures parents that there is a safer, more sensible way to vaccinate. He wants parents to make their own “informed” decisions about whether or how to proceed with vaccinating their children, making sure to let them know that if they do choose to vaccinate, he knows the safest way to do it. And for $13.99 (paperback), he’ll share it with them.

In the final chapter of his book (entitled “What should you do now?”), after reinforcing the common vaccine myths of the day, Dr. Sears presents his readers with “Dr. Bob’s Alternative Vaccine Schedule.” He places this side-by-side with the schedule recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. He then explains why his schedule is a safer choice for parents who chose to vaccinate their children. Without a doubt, the alternative vaccine schedule is among the more damaging aspects of this book. It’s the part that gets brought along to the pediatrician’s office and presented as the the plan going forward for many parents today. But the book is also dangerous in the way in which it validates the pervasive myths that are currently scaring parents into making ill-informed decisions for their children. Dr. Sears discusses these now common parental concerns, but instead of countering them with sound science, he lets them stand on their own as valid. He points out that most doctors are ill-equipped to discuss vaccines with parents, being poorly trained in the science of vaccine risks and benefits. He then claims to be a newly self-taught vaccine expert, a laughable conceit given the degree to which he misunderstands the science he purports to have read, and in the way he downplays the true dangers of the vaccine-preventable diseases he discusses in his book. He then provides parents with what he views as rational alternatives to the recommended vaccination schedule, a schedule designed by the country’s true authorities on vaccinology, childhood infectious disease, and epidemiology.

So what does Dr. Sears have to say, exactly, about the risks of vaccines, and just how out of touch is he with medical science and epidemiology? (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Incorporating Placebos into Mainstream Medicine

Alternative medicine by definition is medicine that has not been shown to work any better than placebo. Patients think they are helped by alternative medicine. Placebos, by definition, do “please” patients. We would all like to please our patients, but we don’t want to lie to them. Is there a compromise? Is there a way we can ethically elicit the same placebo response that alternative theorists elicit by telling their patients fairy tales about qi, subluxations, or the memory of water?

Psychiatrist Morgan Levy has written a book entitled Placebo Medicine. It’s available free online. In it, he makes an intriguing case for incorporating the best alternative medicine placebo treatments into mainstream medicine.

In a light, entertaining style, he covers the placebo effect, suggestibility, and the foibles of the human thought processes that allow us to believe a treatment works when it doesn’t.

“Thinking like a human” is not a logical way to think but it is not a stupid way to think either. You could say that our thinking is intelligently illogical. Millions of years of evolution did not result in humans that think like a computer. It is precisely because we think in an intelligently illogical way that our predecessors were able to survive… [by acting on quick assumptions rather than waiting for comprehensive, definitive data]… We have evolved to survive, not to play chess.

He offers evidence from scientific studies indicating that belief in a treatment and the power of suggestion can have actual physiologic consequences such as production of endorphins or changes on brain imaging studies. He spices his narrative with colorful stories, including anecdotes from his own sex life and an impassioned plea (tongue in cheek?) for everyone to drink coffee for its proven benefits. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Medical Ethics

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Birth Day

So many of the posts on this blog are critical and deal with examples of poor science or other problems. I’d like to offer a breath of fresh air in the form of a book by Mark Sloan, MD: Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History, and the Wonder of Childbirth.

It is a very positive book. Sloan has attended over 3000 deliveries but he has not lost his sense of wonder. He tells us what life is like in the womb – how much the fetus can see and hear – and smell! He explains the labor process. He explains how a fetus has to rapidly adapt to life outside the womb with a number of physiologic changes. He reflects the joy of bringing a new life into a family, and the experience of becoming a father. He delves into the history of childbirth, with fascinating anecdotes about “salting” newborns, Queen Victoria’s influence on obstetric analgesia, and the attempt to keep forceps a proprietary secret of one family.

He shows the many contributions science has made to childbirth, some of the mistakes it made along the way, and how it corrected those mistakes. (more…)

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Could Francis Collins’ Faith Create Conflicts For His Potential Directorship of NIH?

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is probably best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, though his discoveries of the Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington’s, and Neurofibromatosis genes are also extraordinary accomplishments. Dr. Collins is a world-renowned scientist and geneticist, and also a committed Christian. In his recent best-selling book, The Language Of God, Dr. Collins attempts to harmonize his commitment to both science and religion.

Some critics (such as Richard Dawkins) have expressed reservations about Dr. Collins’ faith, wondering if it might cloud his scientific judgment. Since Collins is rumored to be the most likely candidate for directorship of the NIH, and because I wanted to know if Dawkins et al. had any reason for concern, I decided to read The Language Of God.

First of all, Christians are a rather heterogeneous group – with a range of viewpoints on evolution, science, and the interpretation of Biblical texts. On one extreme there are Christians (often referred to as “young earth creationists” or simply “creationists”) who believe in an absolutely literal interpretation of the Genesis story, and see evolution as antithetical to true faith. Dr. Collins suggests that as many as 45% of Christians may actually be in this camp.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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An Original: Richard de Mille, Carlos Castaneda, Literary Quackery

An Original: Richard De Mille, Carlos Castaneda, and Literary Quackery

I was away in Nature – with a real capital N,  and decided to insert an allegory this week instead of a medical subject. The genesis here was a sweeping of the mind and brushing away of cobwebs and detritus called worries and other preoccupations.  The application to this here blog is – methodology. The experience is one of discovery, and of loss, and of bearing the burden of inaction.   

 

Some thirty or more years ago a family member became enamored of a new book, The Teachings of don Juan by an unknown author, Carlos Castaneda. But mention the name now and one gets one of two responses: Who is that?  Or, Oh, he is that literary fraud.  But in the late 1960s – 1970s, two social movements had captured imaginations of youth, academics, and much of the intellectual world. They made fantasy seem plausible, and fraud seem believable – psychedelics and postmodernism.

Advocates of psychedelics, most of whom experienced drug-induced alterations,  promoted revolutionary psychological ideas such as drug-induced multiple realities.  The other, postmodernism, was and is the intellectual and philosophical movement originating in academia that similarly views of reality(ies) as possibly multiple.  (The relation, if any, to alternate universes and relativity theories in physics I have to leave to philosophers.) But the ‘60s and ‘70s were decades of several revolutions in social and personal thought – paradigm changes – that brought fairy tales, delusions, and irrationality onto realms of plausibility, from which we are still reeling, and trying to deal with. 
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Academia

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Science under Siege

A new book, Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience addresses many of the issues near and dear to the hearts of SBM bloggers and readers. A compilation of some of the best writing from the last few years of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it’s not only good reading but can serve as a useful reference.

Skeptical Inquirer is the official magazine of what was formerly called The Committee for the Skeptical Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was formed in 1976 and in its early days it concentrated on things like Bigfoot, UFOs and psychics. It has morphed into the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the magazine is now described on its cover as “The Magazine for Science and Reason.” It has gone way beyond paranormal claims to address everything from intelligent design to AIDS denial. In the 3 decades of its existence it has performed an invaluable service by investigating alleged phenomena and testing claims scientifically, providing natural explanations for weird observations, refuting pseudoscientific arguments, and teaching people how science works and how to think critically.

We now have many skeptical magazines, including Michael Shermer’s Skeptic in the US and similarly named publications in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. But Skeptical Inquirer was the first. It was the trailblazer and set the standard.

The word “skeptic” has negative connotations for some. But it is really a positive, inquisitive, reality-based approach to all aspects of life. A skeptic is a person who asks for evidence before accepting a belief and who asks if there could be another explanation other than the first one that is offered. Scientists are skeptics. Skeptics think scientifically. (more…)

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“Acupuncture Anesthesia”: a Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part III)

A Digression: The Politics of Chinese Medicine in the People’s Republic of China (The Early Years)

***

A Partial Book Review: Chinese Medicine in Early Communist China, 1945-63: a Medicine of Revolution, by Kim Taylor

Mao’s was a complex personality. He was by nature a control freak, highly secretive, quickly suspicious, ruthless in revenge. These were all personal characteristics that were to determine the flow of politics in early Communist China. (Taylor, p. 4)

We have already seen that attempts to create ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ began in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1958. As suggested by the title of this series, this resulted from neither rigorous research nor the serendipity that occasionally heralds important discoveries. Rather, the apparent prominence of acupuncture in health care in the PRC was a matter of governmental fiat. Even before the Communist victory in 1949, it was clear to Chairman Mao Zedong that there were not enough ‘Western’ trained physicians to handle the massive health problems of the country, which included an infant mortality rate of 1 in 5, an overall death rate of 30 per 1000 per year, and widespread disability. Most of this was due to malnutrition and infectious diseases, including many that sound exotic and ominous to the modern ear:

…schistosomiasis, filariasis, ancyclostomiasis, Kala-azar, encephalitis, plague, malaria, smallpox and venereal disease…measles, dysentery, typhoid, diphtheria, trachoma, tuberculosis, leprosy, goitre, Kaschin-Beck’s disease…(Taylor, p. 103)

Pre-scientific Chinese medicine, acupuncture in particular, was identified by Mao and other Communist leaders as worthy of cultivating:

Our nation’s health work teams are large. They have to concern themselves with over five hundred million people [including the] young, old, and ill. This is a huge enterprise, and one that is extremely important. Thus our responsibility weighs heavily…At present, doctors of Western medicine are few [10,000-20,000], and [thus] the broad masses of the people, and in particular the peasants, rely on Chinese medicine to treat illness. Therefore, we must strive for the complete unification of Chinese medicine. –Mao Zedong, 1950, quoted in Taylor (p. 33)

Taylor writes that there may have been 500,000 doctors of ‘Chinese Medicine’ at the time. It is tempting to conclude that Mao’s call for the ‘unification of Chinese medicine’ was a cynical way to make it appear that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could provide adequate health care in a much shorter time than would be required to train sufficient numbers of modern physicians and to build and equip modern facilities. This is undoubtedly true, but Taylor argues that there were additional considerations:

…Mao evidently saw the profession of Chinese medicine not so much as a therapeutic practice, but more as a large, and therefore significant, body of people. Mao’s support of Chinese medicine during this time can be linked to a concern for adequate health care manpower, and by extrapolation, to a concern for social stability. If the Chinese medical practitioners were ignored and not forcibly, as it were, integrated into the new Communist society, and if their medicine was not encouraged, it would mean hundreds of thousands of people would be without a livelihood. Including their dependents, this would mean that there would be hundreds of thousands of people without any means of support. It is likely that Mao interpreted the more serious problem to be one of economics, and the importance of keeping people usefully employed within society, rather than the dangers of supporting a potentially ineffective medicine. (Taylor, p. 35)

Mao also wrote:

Although we should have an all-round and correct understanding of Chinese medicine, Chinese medicine also has to transform itself. We must accept this slice of our old heritage critically. To look down upon Chinese medicine is not correct. To claim that everything about Chinese medicine is good, or too good, this is also not correct. Chinese and Western medicines must unite. (Mao Zedung, 1954, quoted in Taylor, p. 35)

Thus there was, according to Taylor, to be a ‘scientification’ of Chinese medicine. This did not mean ‘scientific’ in the familiar sense:

In Mao’s definition of this ‘new democratic culture’, he was to use three words which were to describe its development. These were ‘new’ (xin), ‘science’ (kexue), and ‘unity’ (tuanjie). The term ‘new’ implied free from superstition and the heavy links to a feudal past. Instead the components of the new culture would have to be forward moving and enterprising. Mao advocated that such a change would be possible through the use of ‘science’. By ‘science’ Mao was not so much referring to the science linked with the Western investigation of nature, but more to the Marxist ideal of science as the criteria for true knowledge. For Mao stated that ‘this type of new democratic culture is scientific. It is opposed to all feudal and superstitious ideas; it stands for seeking truth from facts, it stands for objective truth and for unity between theory and practice’. ‘Unity’ was the third criterion in the building up of a new China. Everybody had to join together and fight for the same cause, and this included all classes of Chinese society, from the upper bourgeoisie to the peasantry, so long as their beliefs were not against those of the Party. It also implied a unity of knowledge, and this had particular implications for the revolutionary intellectual. (Taylor, pp. 15-16)

In other words, as Mao later asserted,

In the future there will be only one medicine; that is to say a [single] medicine guided by the laws of dialectical materialism, and not two [separate] medicines. (Quoted in Taylor, p. 35)

(more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Another Kind of Evolutionary Medicine

Last month I wrote about a book on evolutionary medicine that I could not recommend. Now I’ve found one I can recommend. Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Riverside, has written a delightful book entitled Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are. She describes how our parasites and diseases co-evolved with us: as we developed better defenses, they developed better weapons. “We do not choose to have them, but our lives are unimaginable without them, and for better or worse, they have made us who we are.” Parasites have altered our bodies in ways that science fiction filmmakers could never have imagined. She even suggests that we can thank parasites for the fact that we reproduce sexually rather than asexually.

She advocates an evolutionary medicine that “places diseases and defects in an evolutionary framework to make sense of the apparent mismatch between the way our bodies often work and the way we would like them to.” Evolution did not design our bodies for health, but to maximize reproduction.

“Just because our species evolved in a different environment does not mean …that following the ways of the past is automatically going to free us from the illnesses of modern life.” She incisively debunks the myth of the Paleolithic diet and points out that if we wanted to copy our hunter-gatherer ancestors we would have no way of deciding which ones to copy – the ones from 10,000 years ago or the ones from 100,000 years ago; the Inuits or the Kalahari Bushmen. She also points out that evolution explains why humans vary and why one diet won’t suit everyone. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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Evolutionary Medicine

I have been asked to review a pre-publication proof of a book that will be published in May 2009: Evolution Rx: A Physician’s Guide to Harnessing Our Innate Capacity for Health and Healing by William Meller, MD. It offers “a primal yet radical new view of why we act and feel the way we do, why we get sick and how we heal. This new perspective, known as evolutionary medicine, looks at how our Stone Age ancestors lived, loved, got sick and got well over millions of years, which leads to guidelines for living longer healthier and happier lives today.”

He says we are the way we are because that’s what it took to adapt and survive throughout our evolutionary history. To some extent, that’s true, but that’s not the whole story. Sometimes we are the way we are because of an accident of evolutionary history that had no bearing on survival. Sometimes we are the way we are because a useless trait was linked to a useful one and came along for the ride – what Stephen Jay Gould referred to as “spandrels.”

The problem with evolutionary explanations is that we can never know for sure if they are true. We may be inventing “Just So Stories” like Rudyard Kipling’s “How the Camel Got His Hump.” Our explanation may seem perfectly reasonable but we may not have all the information and there may be a better explanation that simply doesn’t occur to us. (more…)

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