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Don’t call CAM “cost-effective” unless it’s actually effective

Your health insurance plan probably covers anti-inflammatory drugs. But does it cover acupuncture treatments? Should it? Which health services deliver good value for money? Lest you think the debate is limited to the United States (which is an outlier when it comes to health spending), even countries with publicly-run healthcare systems are scrutinizing spending. Devoting dollars to one area (say, hospitals) is effectively a decision not to spend on something else, (perhaps public health programs). All systems, be they public or private, allocate funds in ways to spend money in the most efficient way possible. Thoughtful decisions require a consideration of both benefits and costs.

One of the consistent positions put forward by contributors to this blog is that all health interventions should be evaluated based on the same evidence standard. From this perspective, there is no distinct basket of products and services which are labelled “alternative”, “complementary” or more recently “integrative”. There are only treatments and interventions which have been evaluated to be effective, and those that have not. The idea that these two categories should both be considered valid approaches is a testament to promoters of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), who, unable to meet the scientific standard, have argued (largely successfully) for different standards and special consideration — be it product regulation (e.g., supplements) or practitioner regulation.

Yet promoters of CAM seek the imprimatur of legitimacy conferred by the tools of science. And in an environment of economic restraint in health spending, they further recognize that showing economic value of CAM is important. Consequently they use the tools of economics to argue a perspective, rather than answer a question. And that’s the case with a recent paper I noticed was being touted by alternative medicine practitioners. Entitled, Are complementary therapies and integrative care cost-effective? A systematic review of economic evaluations, it attempts to summarize economic evaluations conducted on CAM treatments. Why a systematic review? One of the more effective tools for evaluating health outcomes, a systematic review seeks to analyze all published (and unpublished) information on a focused question, using a standardized, transparent approach to evidence analysis. When done well, systematic reviews can sift through thousands of clinical trials to answer focused questions in ways that are less biased than cherry-picking individual studies. The Cochrane Review’s systematic reviews form one of the more respected sources of objective information (with some caveats) on the efficacy of different health interventions. So there’s been interest in applying the techniques of systematic reviews to questions of economics, where both costs and effects must be measured. Economic evaluations at their core seek to measure the “bang for the buck” of different health interventions. The most accurate economic analyses are built into prospective clinical trials. These studies collect real-world costs and patient consequences, and then allow an accurate evaluation of value-for-money. These types of analyses are rare, however. Most economic evaluations involve modelling (a little to a lot) where health effects and related costs are estimated, to arrive at a calculation of value. Then there’s a discussion of whether that value calculation is “cost-effective”. It’s little wonder that many health professionals look suspiciously at economic analyses: the models are complicated and involve so many variables with subjective inputs that it can be difficult to sort out what the real effects are. Not surprisingly, most economic analyses suggest treatments are cost-effective. Before diving into the study, let’s consider the approach:

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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Low Level Lasers: N-Rays in action.

I do not want to get all angsty and omphaloskeptic, but I have been thinking more of late about the purpose of the blog and my role in it.  Blogs,and the people who write them,  are ephemeral.  It takes a unique personality and commitment to churn out these essays and commit them to the ether.  Especially since Michelson and Morley.

I have never given much thought as to who our readers are, at least as a composite.  I read most of the comments on every entry and have certainly developed a mental picture of some of our regular commenters, although I suspect I probably do not have even the gender correct most of the time.  The commenters represent a tiny fraction of the regular readers and an even smaller fraction of occasional readers.  It occurs to me I haven’t a clue who the real audience of this blog is.

I write  first for my own education and entertainment, then for the slightly bored and overwhelmed medicine resident, since that is who I spend most of my time educating at work.  Someone educated with an understanding of basic medicine but has more important things on their mind than a need for a detailed understanding of why homeopathy is complete nonsense.  I doubt the majority of my readers are health care workers and I suspect  continuing medical education is not a major part of the blog.

I never considered SBM to be a consumer protection group, but this week my wife showed me a half page advertisement in the local paper, and I realized that not only was the advertisement a good topic for blogging, but consumer protection is a fundamental result of this blog.  There really is no site on the interweb that looks at both SCAM and real medicine with quite the same skeptical eye.  Here is the headline:

A Special Wellness Report

New Medicine Based On An 88- Year Old Theory By Albert Einstein Can Help Almost Everyone Who Is Sick Or Injured! (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Vital Signs

As I have mentioned in the past, almost all of my practice is inpatient medicine, doing infectious disease consults in acute care hospitals. I only spend three hours a week in the outpatient clinic, so I have a skewed perception of medicine and disease. The patients I see are sick, really sick, often trying to die and are a complicated collection of abnormal labs and deranged physiology.

I remember finishing residency thinking that a potassium of 2.8, a hemoglobin of 9.8 or a bilirubin of 4.5 wasn’t all that bad, losing track of normal physiology amongst all the medical pathology. I never did lose track of normal vital signs (VS): pulse, respiration, blood pressure and temperature. Like trying to be the fifth Beatle, over the years other values have vied to become the fifth vital sign: pain level or O2 saturation, but none have the importance of the fab four. I can live without pain*, but I can’t live long if the other vital signs are abnormal for extended periods of time. Watching the vital signs return to normal is often an important variable that signifies the patient is improving. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Science and Medicine

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What Would It Take?

I recently wrote a SkepDoc column on fantasy physics in Skeptic magazine in which I mentioned a study that had allegedly measured 2 milligauss emanations from a healer’s hands. A reader inquired about it and went on to ask “what criteria is [sic] necessary for gaining acceptance in the scientific community in regards to purported healing processes using energy fields generated in the human hand, specifically the palm area.”

What would it take to prove this implausible claim to the satisfaction of the scientific community? That is an excellent question with a complicated answer. It’s worth looking at because there is only one science and the same standards apply to how science evaluates any claim. I’ll take a stab at it, and perhaps our commenters can add words of wisdom.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine

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There’s an app for that ?!?

There is no shortage of technology in my household: computers, smart phones and tablets of one kind or another. The nice thing about being a blogger and an app developer is I can justify it all. Well, mostly. The “It’s probably tax deductible” gambit can only be used so many times. It is remarkable how much of my life is filtered through the digital lens. I think if google glasses ever become a reality, my kids and I will be the first up to be permanently wired into the world. To my way of thinking, the Daemon haunted world looks like hog heaven.

There is an app for just about anything, many of which feed into my OCD. I keep track of my daily walk and I have walked over 1500 miles since July 1, 2011. When I developed my middle aged bloat I had the option of medications to control the metabolic results or lose some damn weight. Losing weight is simple in concept, hard in execution. Take in fewer calories than you expend and the weight will slowly, ever so maple bar free slowly, come off. It took 9 months to drop the 45 pounds needed, and I must say I feel just as old and creaky as I did before, but my labs are better. The opposite of the placebo effect: I am subjectively the same but am objectively better. I’ll take it.  One of the cool features of the app I used, and still use, for calorie management is that it will take a picture of the bar code of food and give you the nutritional information for entry in the program. Amazing.

A fellow bugdoc sent me a link to story about Chinese Tongue diagnosis. The journal article has been accepted for publication as Automated Tongue Feature Extraction for ZHENG Classification in Traditional Chinese Medicine 

It is as fine a piece of tooth fairy science and tooth fairy engineering as I have ever encountered. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Bach Flower Remedies

May is the month associated with flowers, so I thought it would be timely to look at flower remedies. You may have heard of “rescue remedy” or other Bach flower remedies. (The preferred pronunciation is “Batch,” but it’s also acceptable to pronounce it like the composer.) They contain a very small amount of flower material in a 50:50 solution of brandy and water, and are said to work by transmitting a vibrational energy through the memory of water (not the same as homeopathy, but equally implausible).

Bach was trained as a homeopath and even created some bacterial homeopathic nosodes, but then he branched out. He used his intuition to access a psychic connection to plants. He would hold his hand over different plants to see which one affected his emotional state, and he would collect the dew from that plant to use as a remedy.

The Remedies

A facsimile edition of Bach’s 1936 book The Twelve Healers is available free on the Internet. It makes interesting reading. It starts off:

From time immemorial it has been known that Providential Means has placed in Nature the prevention and cure of disease, by means of divinely enriched herbs and plants and trees. The remedies of Nature given in this book have proved that they are blest above others in their work of mercy; and that they have been given the power to heal all types of illness and suffering.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements

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More “bait and switch” acupuncture studies

Acupuncture has been a frequent topic on this blog because, of all the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) modalities out there, it’s arguably the one that most people accept as potentially having some validity. The rationale behind acupuncture is, as we have explained many times before, little different than the rationale behind any “energy healing” method (like reiki, for example) in that it claims to redirect the flow of “life energy” (the ever-invoked qi). The only difference is that acupuncturists claim to bring this therapeutic qi rearrangement about by sticking thin needles into the pathways in the body through which this qi is fantasized to flow. These pathways, called meridians, are just as much a fantasy as qi itself or the “universal source” that reiki masters claim to be able to channel through themselves and into believers. Contributing to the popularity of acupuncture is its mythology as having been routinely practiced for over two thousand years, a myth that was the creation of Chairman Mao, who elevated what was a marginal practice at the time to a modality that the state supported and promoted (1,2,3,4).

In addition, because acupuncture involves sticking actual metal objects into the skin rather than simply laying on hands or making magical gestures over the patient, it retains some credibility, even among doctors. It doesn’t matter that, reviewing the totality of the research, one finds that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick the needles in the skin. The results are the same and indistinguishable from placebo. The inescapable conclusion is that acupuncture is placebo medicine with needles. Personally, I’d prefer my placebo medicine without needles, but that’s just me.

Yet, the studies keep rolling in, trying desperately to demonstrate that acupuncture works or assuming that acupuncture works . Two more popped up within the last couple of weeks, and one of them, if you read the press releases, sounds really convincing. As is frequently the case, for this latter study, there is less to it than meets the eye. I’ll start, however, with a study that is a followup to a study I blogged about a couple of years ago that I characterized as another overhyped acupuncture study misinterpreted. This one, thankfully, is not nearly as hyped as the study from two years ago—or as the second study I will discussed, but it is very instructive how the original misinterpreted story is leading to a classic CAM “bait and switch” applied to acupuncture.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Energy Medicine, Science and the Media

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The regulation of nonsense

 The most meticulous regulation of nonsense must still result in nonsense.

– Edzard Ernst, M.D., PhD., professor, Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter, UK

One necessity of licensing so-called “complementary and alternative,” or “CAM,” practitioners is to spell out exactly what is encompassed in the CAM scope of practice. This is unfortunate for the practitioners because it forces an exposé of the nonsensical precepts underlying their claims. For example,

‘Acupuncture’ refers to a form of health care, based on a theory of energetic physiology that describes and explains the interrelationship of the body organs or functions with an associated acupuncture point or combination of points located on ‘channels’ or ‘meridians’. . . Acupuncture points are stimulated in order to restore the normal function of the aforementioned organs or sets of functions.

(Delaware acupuncture practice act.)

[Chiropractic is] the science of adjusting the cause of the disease by realigning the spine, releasing pressure on nerves radiating from the spine to all parts of the body, and allowing the nerves to carry their full quota of health current (nerve energy) from the brain to all parts of the body.

(North Carolina chiropractic practice act.)

The practice of naturopathic medicine includes, but is not limited to, the following services:. . . ordering, administering, prescribing, or dispensing for preventive and therapeutic purposes: food, extracts of food, nutraceuticals, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, botanicals and their extracts, botanical medicines, herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, dietary supplements and nonprescription drugs as defined by the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, glandulars, protomorphogens, lifestyle counseling, hypnotherapy, biofeedback, dietary therapy, electrotherapy, galvanic therapy, oxygen, therapeutic devices, barrier devices for contraception, and minor office procedures, including otaining specimens to assess and treat disease. . .

(Minnesota naturopathic practic act.)

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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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The “CAM” Consumer: Misled and Abused

There is a disturbing lack of protection for the consumer of “complementary and alternative” products and services. I can think of no other area of commerce where misleading, as well as out and out false, information is so regularly employed, without consequence, to entice the consumer into forking over his hard-earned cash. Nor do I know of any other manner of goods or services where giving consumers patently false information is protected by law.

Consider first the fact that nonsensical gibberish is enshrined in state law in the form of “CAM” practice acts, which give practitioners of implausible, if not wholly discredited, diagnostic methods and treatments carte blanche to ply their trades. For example, as has been discussed before on SBM, state law defines chiropractic as the detection and correction of subluxations, which, as many chiropractors themselves admit, do not exist. State practice acts define acupuncture in such pseudoscientific terms as “modulation and restoration of normal function in and between the body’s energetic and organ systems and biomechanical, metabolic and circulation functions using stimulation of selected points.”

As well, naturopathy practice acts allow “mixing and matching treatments including traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, herbalism, Ayurvedic medicine, applied kinesiology, anthroposophical medicine, reflexology, craniosacral therapy, Bowen Technique, and pretty much any other form of unscientific or prescientific medicine that you can imagine.” State practice acts also permit the indiscriminate use of the term “doctor” and “physician.” Scope of practice is broadly defined as “primary care.” (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Dr. Oz revisited

We here at SBM have been very critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz, who through his relentless self-promotion (and with more than a little help from his patron Oprah Winfrey) has somehow become known as “America’s doctor.” Back in the early days, when he was the regular medical expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Oz was at least tolerable. Much of what he discussed was reasonably science-based and even sensible, mainly advice to eat better and get more exercise, which is what most primary care doctors tell their patients every day. True, he did “integrate” some non-evidence-based therapies in with the evidence-based therapies, which was not good given how a typical viewer wouldn’t be able to tell where the science-based advice ended and the magical thinking began, but for the most part, even on Oprah’s show, he kept his woo somewhat in check. At least, there were boundaries beyond which he wouldn’t pass, even though Dr. Oz’s wife is a reiki master and he has been a fan of reiki (gaining fame for inviting reiki masters into his operating room during cardiac surgery) since at least the 1990s. More recently, Dr. Oz has testified in front of NCCAM patron Senator Tom Harkin’s committee to promote “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as its advocates like to call it now, “integrative medicine.” He’s also been the Medical Director for the Integrative Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center since 2001. (How he does his TV show, holds a job as a professor of surgery at Columbia University, and holds positions as Clinical Trials of New Surgical Technology, Attending Surgeon, and Director, Clinical Perfusion Services at the same hospital, I’ll never know. He must have the most understanding partners ever.)

Be that as it may, even after Dr. Oz landed The Doctor Oz Show, for the first half of his first season he kept it fairly straight and science-based. However, two years ago the mask began to slip when Dr. Oz first aired a credulous feature about reiki under the title Dr. Oz’s Ultimate Alternative Medicine Secrets. Not long after that, Dr. Oz featured a man who is in my opinion arguably the foremost promoter of quackery on the Internet, Dr. Joe Mercola, along with the master of quantum quackery, Dr. Deepak Chopra. It was at that point that one could rightly say that Dr. Oz had “crossed the Woobicon.” Since then, it’s been one thing after another, beginning in earnest about a year ago. For instance, in January 2011, Dr. Oz featured Dr. Mercola again in a completely credulous portrait that painted him a “brave maverick doctor,” only without a hint of irony. A couple of weeks later, he featured a yogi who advocated “detoxing” and a faith healer from my old stomping grounds in Cleveland. Then, just when I thought Oz couldn’t go any lower, he featured psychic scammer John Edward.

Finally, back in April 2011, Dr. Oz’s producers apparently figured out that there was a problem with Dr. Oz’s image, except that they saw it as an opportunity to gin up a little controversy on the show. They invited our very own Dr. Steve Novella on the show as the “skeptic” who criticizes Dr. Oz. I very much admire Steve for going into the lion’s den, where, he knew in advance, he would be the underdog and the audience would be against him. Steve acquitted himself well, and after his appearance, I have to admit, I pretty much stopped paying attention to Dr. Oz for several months. He basically faded into the background of quackery, a prominent voice “integrating” quackery with medicine, pseudoscience with science, in the apparent belief that mixing fantasy with reality somehow improves medicine. Personally, I prefer Mark Crislip’s take and will steal his statement about “integrative medicine”:

If you integrate fantasy with reality, you do not instantiate reality. If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.

I just learned last week that Dr. Oz, while trying to make the cow pie taste better, is only continuing to succeed in making the apple pie taste worse. Witness an episode from last week featuring a long segment entitled Dr. Mercola’s Most Radical Alternative Cures, or, as the banner on the segment calls it, “Radical Cures Your Doctor Thinks Are Crazy.” Not surprisingly, Dr. Mercola has been bragging about his fourth appearance on Dr. Oz’s show yet again. (Video: Part 1 and Part 2).
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