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Mathematically modeling why quackery persists

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s often puzzled me (and, I daresay, many other skeptics and boosters of science- and evidence-based medicine) why various forms of quackery and woo that have either about as close to zero prior probability as you can get and/or have failed to show evidence greater than placebo in clinical trials manage to retain so much traction among the public. Think homeopathy. Think reiki. The former is nothing more than sympathetic magic prettied up with science-y sounding terms, while the latter is nothing more than faith healing given a slant based on Eastern mysticism and religion instead of Christianity. Indeed, reiki was even inspired by stories of Jesus’ healing powers, complete with a trip into the wilderness for fasting and prayer, resulting in revelation. Or consider acupuncture, a modality that is seemingly more popular than ever, even invading the very sanctum sanctorum of the ivory towers of academic medicine, yet every study of which that is done under rigorous conditions with proper placebo controls shows it to be no more efficacious than a placebo. It’s easy enough to shake one’s head and chalk it up to irrationality, ignorance of science, or even religious faith, but I’ve always been dissatisfied with such glib explanations, even though admittedly I have myself used them on occasion.

That’s why a study released last week in PLoS One by Mark M. Tanaka, Jeremy R. Kendal, Kevin N. Laland out of the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, School of Biotechnology & Biomolecular Sciences, University of New South Wales, the Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, and the School of Biology, University of St Andrews, Fife, respectively, entitled From Traditional Medicine to Witchcraft: Why Medical Treatments Are Not Always Efficacious. Besides loving the title, I also like the methodology, which in essence adapts the tools of modeling evolution and the spread of traits throughout a population and asks the question: Why do ineffective or even harmful (or, as the authors characterize them, “maladaptive”) treatments for various illnesses persist in populations? The results are surprising and counterintuitive, yet ring true. In essence, the authors conclude that the most efficacious self-treatments are not always the ones that spread and that even harmful treatments can spread. Both of these observations are entirely plausible based on the prevalence of usage of common woo and quackery, and what the authors have done, in essence, is to model mathematically why quackery persists.

Indeed, the authors set the stage:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Homeocracy

Recent comments on homeopathy again resulted in references to the 1994 Pediatrics paper by Jacobs et al on use of homeopathic remedies for childhood diarrhrea.  The authors of that paper concluded from their blinded study that homeopathic remedies, tailored to the individual infants and children, were effective in reducing the number of diarrhea stools and thus in shortening the illness.  The paper has been widely referenced and reported to have proved  homeopathy efficacy, and the critiques have been argued by homeopaths as irrelevant, as has been done by Mr. Ullman.

In this short series I want to recount my experience with the report, its predecessor, and its two major sequellae, as well as its effect on systematic reviews of homeopathy.  I will begin with a description of the first two studies, concentrating on their methods. Then I will discuss the results of the 1994 Pediatrics report and the authors’ interpretation of the results. Then (I hope last) I will discuss the third paper which the authors claimed supported findings of the first two and the meta-analysis which combined data from all three. If you are imagining why this  series interests me, and imagining the worst, you are probably right. The sequence will  help to reveal how some of the information in “holistic” and “alternative” systems become published, and despite critiques and disproofs through a sort of systematic deconstructions, still develop wheels of their own and enter the fund of general knowledge seemingly forever. Or, at least for several decades, until a social belief switch is finally turned off.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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PSA – To Screen or Not to Screen

You’ve all heard the dramatic testimonials in the media: “I had a PSA test and they found my prostate cancer early enough to treat it. The test saved my life. You should get tested too.” The subject of screening tests is one that confuses the public. On the surface, it would seem that if you can screen everyone and find abnormalities before they become symptomatic, only good would result. That’s not true. Screening tests do harm as well as good, and we need to carefully consider the trade-offs.

About half of American men over the age of 50 have had a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) screening test for prostate cancer. Recommendations for screening vary. The US Preventive Services Taskforce (USPSTF) says there is insufficient evidence to recommend screening. The American Urological Association and the American Cancer Society recommend screening. Urologists practice what they preach: 95% of male urologists over the age of 50 have been screened. But other groups like the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend discussing the pros and cons of screening with patients and letting them make an informed choice.

Two recent studies published simultaneously in The New England Journal of Medicine have added to the controversy. One concluded that screening does not reduce deaths from prostate cancer; the other concluded that it reduces deaths by 20%. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Medical Propaganda Films

David Gorski suggested I expand on a comment I left recently on one of his November posts. His subject was the then new documentary movie, “A Beautiful Truth.“ “Truth” is about the Gerson method – the dietary deprivation cum coffee enema cancer treatment developed by Dr. Max Gerson, a refugeee from Germany I the 1930s. His daughter, Charlotte now runs the Gerson Institute in Tijuana, Mexico. Gerson is one of the models for the Gonzales method recently reviewed by Kim Atwood.

I had previously referred to the movie in a prior post (1) (but in a different context. Here I’ll explore the movie from a different angle – with its partners, propaganda documentaries.

David called my attention to “Truth” plus another by the same producer – with trailers on You Tube. When I watched the trailers last year I saw myself interviewed briefly, but could not recall being filmed, or even identify where the scene took place. I had to email Steve Barrett, also in the movie, who reminded me about filmmaker Steve Kroschel’s visits 2-3 years before, although neither did he have strong memory of the interview.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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When fraud undermines science-based medicine

The overriding them, the raison d’être if you will, of this blog is science-based medicine. However, it goes beyond that in that we here at SBM believe that science- and evidence-based medicine is the best medicine. It’s more than the best medicine, though; it’s the best strategy for medicine to improve therapy for our patients. We frequently contrast science-based medicine with various forms of “complementary and alternative medicine,” specifically pointing out that SBM changes its practices as new science and new evidence mandates it while CAM tends to rely on ancient, vitalistic, pre-scientific or pre-modern scientific beliefs about how disease occurs as the basis for its therapies. Although it may be painfully slow and frustrating at times and even though there may be major stumbles along the way, the overall course of SBM over the last century has in general been to produce ever more effective therapies and to discard therapies that are either ineffective or whose risk-benefit ratios are insufficiently favorable. The one single most important thing behind the advancement of medicine is good science.

That’s why I really, really hate scientific fraud, and I’m really, really upset, perhaps even more so than Dr. Atwood, over the discovery last week of what is arguably one of the most massive scientific frauds in medical history. It doesn’t matter that Dr. Atwood is an anaesthesiologist and I am not, meaning that the specific scientific fraud unearthed, which was perpetrated by an anesthesiologist studying multimodal anesthesia, as reported in Anesthesiology News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. I am a surgeon, and the relief of surgical pain in my patients is an important part of my practice. If the scientific basis of what my colleagues in anesthesiology do before, during, and after my operations is called into doubt, I have to wonder if I am giving my patients the best surgical care. Aside from that, there is the intellectual outrage I feel as a result of seeing science and patients betrayed in such a systematic and blatant manner.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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Scientific Fraud Hits Home

Last week the story broke that Scott Reuben, an anesthesiologist and clinical researcher at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA, had falsified data in at least 21 publications over a period of at least 12 years—making it one of the most enduring examples of scientific fraud in memory. Almost all of Reuben’s papers had reported innovative methods for providing post-operative pain relief (analgesia); many of them involved ‘multimodal’ regimens for painful orthopedic procedures such as spinal fusions and total knee replacements. Recent papers reported regimens that included celecoxib (Celebrex) and pregabalin (Lyrica), both made by Pfizer. Much of Reuben’s research had been funded by Pfizer, and Reuben has been a member of the Pfizer speaker’s bureau (that information is included because the reader would otherwise wonder, but there is no indication that Pfizer has been intentionally involved in Reuben’s fraud).

I will not discuss this case in detail; look for a more comprehensive piece on SBM next week. Rather, I present it now to offer a local example of how such a breach of trust affects those who rely on clinical research to inform their care of patients.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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A Medical-Skeptical Classic

The medical literature slowly becomes outdated. As a result there are not that many ‘classics’ in the field, since their content becomes less relevant. The medical aphorism is that 10 years after graduation from medical school, half of everything you learned will no longer be valid. The problem for medical students is trying to figure out which half of their curriculum is not worth learning.

Old studies become increasingly irrelevant as diagnosis and treatment changes over time under the relentless pressure of medicine. I once came across the best of Osler, with his descriptions of typhoid fever and pneumococcal pneumonia. The essays were far more literary in style than today’s journal articles, describing the presentation of these diseases in Dickens-like detail, but of little practical help given the advances in treatment and the understanding of the microbiology of diseases.

Technology also expands and limits what papers are available. If there is not an electronic form of an article, it might as well not exist. Many classic articles are not yet available in digital form, and the article in question for this post I had to get as a scanned version of the original paper, rather than a pdf. As a result of time and lack of electronic access, much of the older medical literature is not easily accessible, and journal publishers are not particularly interested in the free dissemination of information. Which is a shame. There is the occasional older reference that is as applicable today as when it was published. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Fakin’ it

Last week the Times of London revealed inside information from the General Medical Council (UK, responsible for physician licensing) of an ongoing investigation of Dr. Andrew Wakefield and from its own investigation. This revelation recalled other instances of fakery from reports of sectarian medicine (“CAM”) successes. The Medical Council information contained evidence that the data from the now famous Wakefield cases used to claim an association of the MMR vaccine with childhood autism and inflammatory bowel disease were misinterpreted, altered, and to some extent, faked. The report and history were reviewed by David Gorski last week. In eight of twelve cases, the dates of autism onset were “rearranged” to fit the needed time association, and many small bowel biopsies were “reinterpreted” to show inflammation.

The Wakefield claims were long suspected by reputable medical scientists and skeptics  as being erroneous or fraudulent.  Note: the Council hearings are still in progress, and the Times report is subject to legal complaint.  The original details can also be seen in the Times articles.

This expose’ adds to a growing list of reports with erroneous and faked information in medical journals used either for economic reward, undeserved fame, or to promote ideological claims for medical sects and cults. Although history of erroneous or false claims goes back hundreds of years, the altering or synthesizing of data passing the recently conceived peer review system is new,  illuminating defects in the journal peer review and editing system.

If journals were invented in the 18th century, and operated like journals of today, Mesmer’s demonstrations might have been published, and the Ben Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier and French Academy’s disproof might have been rejected. (Laughter here.) But journals continue to make major goofs in publishing implausible results despite the popularity of a famous specialty journal for that purpose.

Examples vary from acceptance of language manipulation – “alternative,” “healing,” “integrative,” etc., to the fakery of recent papers showing effects of prayer. The two famous studies of prayer in the cardiac care unit ranged from the unadmitted breaking of the blind in the Bird study (So Med J 1988; 81:826-826) to unadmitted imbalances of subject and control groups (Harris, Arch Int Med 1999;159:2273-2278.) And from those to the likely fakery of the distant prayer study of in vitro fertilization (Cha, Wirth, Lobo; J Reprod Med 2001:46;781-786) in which three separate prayer groups on two continents improved pregnancy rates in a group of women on a third continent by an implausible 100 percent. In all of these cases, the papers passed peer or editorial review despite the methodological defects that were picked up by us skeptics (K. Atwood, K.Courcey [an RN] B. Flamm, and others.)

Adding insult to the above, Annals of Internal Medicine published a systematic review of intercessory prayer (Astin et al, Ann Int Med, 2000;132: 903-910) containing not only the Bird and Harris studies counted as positive, but also the Targ study on brain tumors, found by reporter Po Bronson to have had its end point altered by the authors when the primary one showed no effect.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Comparative Clinical Effectiveness Research: Good News In Shades Of Gray

When I first heard about the new emphasis on comparative clinical effectiveness research (CCER) in Obama’s economic stimulus bill I thought, “Thank goodness! Maybe now science will truly regain its rightful place and we’ll end the CAM, ‘me-too’ drug, and excessive-use-of-technology madness that is wasting so much money in healthcare.” In fact, I was so excited about the new administration’s apparent interest in objective analysis of medical treatment options, that I intended to write a jubilant blog post about it. However, as with most things that seem black and white at first glance, further analysis reduces them to shades of gray.

What Is Comparative Clinical Effectiveness Research?

The new economic stimulus bill, also known as The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) includes 1.1 billion dollars for clinical comparative effectiveness research. Interestingly, CCER is not defined in the bill though AHRQ describes it this way in their glossary:

“A type of health care research that compares the results of one approach for managing a disease to the results of other approaches. Comparative effectiveness usually compares two or more types of treatment, such as different drugs, for the same disease. Comparative effectiveness also can compare types of surgery or other kinds of medical procedures and tests. The results often are summarized in a systematic review.”

Any mention of “comparative cost effectiveness” or value-based language is notably absent.

How Does It Work?

The government’s new CCER initiative will be administered through a Federal Coordinating Council for clinical comparative effectiveness research. The FCC consists of a group of 15 federal employees, half of whom “must be physicians or other experts with clinical expertise.” [Meaning, none have to be physicians.] Some have suggested that the FCC is the first step toward an organization modeled after Britain’s National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). NICE is regularly tasked with helping the NHS to decide which medical treatments should be available to their beneficiaries, and which should not be covered (based on their efficacy and cost).

The budget for the CCER will be divvied up as follows:

400 million – left to the discretion of the Secretary of HHS with 1.5 million to go to the Institute of Medicine for a report regarding where to focus CCER attention initially
400 million – to the office of the director, NIH
300 million – to AHRQ

Here is a quote from the ARRA bill, discussing the mechanics of CCER:

“The funding appropriated in this paragraph shall be used to accelerate the development and dissemination of research assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness of health care treatments and strategies, including through efforts that: (1) conduct, support, or synthesize research that compares the clinical outcomes, effectiveness, and appropriateness of items, services, and procedures that are used to prevent, diagnose, or treat diseases, disorders, and other health conditions and (2) encourage the development and use of clinical registries, clinical data networks, and other forms of electronic health data that can be used to generate or obtain outcomes data: Provided further, That the Secretary shall enter into a contract with the Institute of Medicine, for which no more than $1,500,000 shall be made available from funds provided in this paragraph, to produce and submit a report to the Congress and the Secretary by not later than June 30, 2009 that includes recommendations on the national priorities for comparative clinical effectiveness research to be conducted or supported with the funds provided in this paragraph…”

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Another challenge to surgical dogma

Better late than never with this one.

The dogma that I’m referring to is the remaining practice of using NG tubes in anyone with upper gastrointestinal surgery (liver, stomach, pancreas, duodenum, proximal small intestine) and then placing a jejunostomy tube (a tube, also often called a J-tube, that goes into the jejunum, or the proximal part of the small intestine, through which feedings can be given). The rationale for this was that the peristalsis of the small bowel returns almost immediately; it’s the large bowel and stomach whose return of peristalsis is delayed. Consequently, liquid tube feedings, it was thought, could be given beyond the point of surgery into the small bowel because if there is one surgical dogma that the evidence generally supports and probably always will, it’s always better to use the gut for nutrition than to use total parenteral nutrition (TPN, or feeding by veins). Moreover, there was evidence that such feedings had a protective effect on the lining of the bowel, preventing a phenomenon known as bacterial translocation, in which bacteria could pass through the compromised lining of the bowel after surgical stress. The price, however, was the placement of a tube into the proximal intestine, a procedure that, while safe, was definitely not without complications, some of which (such as bowel perforation) could be serious and require reoperation.

Challenging this dogma is the largest multicenter randomized study yet looking at this question: Which is better, bowel rest (NPO) and J-tube feedings or just letting the patient eat the next day? The study comes out of Norway1 and involved 453 patients. Blinding, much less double blinding, was, as is the case in many surgical trials, not possible because of the very nature of the question being examined, but other than that the design of the study was about as strong as a surgeon could ask for. Basically, patients were randomized to a routine of NPO and J-tube feeding until flatus indicated return of bowel function versus normal food at will beginning on postoperative day one; the experimental design is summarized below:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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