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A Guide for Confronting Patients

I sometimes lecture on science-based medicine to my colleagues and one of the most common questions I get is how to deal with a patient who expresses belief in unscientific treatments. The dilemma for the physician is that professionalism requires that we do not confront patients regarding their personal beliefs. We are there to inform and advise, not preach. And yet proper medical care is often hampered by unscientific beliefs on the part of patients.

David wrote previously about a case he reviewed in which a woman with a very treatable early stage of breast cancer opted for “alternative” treatment rather than the standard treatment, which carries a > 93% good outcome. As a result her cancer progressed horribly – but she clung to belief in CAM despite its obvious failure in her case. This story highlighted the fact that giving patients proper medical advice sometime requires confronting their false beliefs.

Unscientific and bizarre medical practices are in vogue and are increasingly infiltrating the medical system through a combination of misguided political correctness, stealth, and apathy. This is exacerbating the dilemma for science-based practitioners who are caught between the imperative to do the right thing in accordance with evidence-based guidelines and the default respect for the patient and the desire to maintain a therapeutic relationship.

In my experience, however, these two goals do not have to be mutually exclusive. An uncompromising but non-judgmental approach works very well.

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Posted in: General, Medical Ethics

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Death by “alternative” medicine: Who’s to blame?

One of the more annoying duties I used to have several years ago at our cancer center was to “show the flag” at our various affiliates by attending their tumor boards. I say “annoying” not so much because the tumor boards themselves were onerous or even uninteresting but rather because traveling to them used to cut into my already limited time for research, given that these tumor boards were always scheduled on days on which I didn’t have to be in clinic or the operating room. In other words, they always took place on my research days.

One of our affiliates was a nearly an hour and a half drive away, and many of them were close to an hour away. When you add up travel time and the tumor board, that’s easily more than three hours eaten up, all too often right in the middle of the day. In actuality, though, several of the tumor boards themselves were quite good, one of which being the aforementioned one that required nearly a 90 minute drive to reach. (It helped that they served a really nice breakfast there, too, but they also have really stimulating discussion about various cancer cases.) One of the weird things about these tumor boards is that I was viewed as–and I quote–the “outside expert.” This was particularly disconcerting the first year I had the job. There I was, fresh out of fellowship, being looked up to as the “expert” by physicians, many of whom who may have been in practice for 10, 20, or even 30 years. Somehow I managed to muddle through without making too big a fool of myself. These days, years later, I almost even feel as though, for breast cancer at least, I am worthy of the appellation of “outside expert.” Experience does matter, I guess.
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Posted in: General, Health Fraud

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The Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo #8

Playing with More than a Full Deck!

The passage submitted in the W^5/2 #7 wasn’t an easy one, but intrepid translators, for the most part, offered waluable insights:

Readers were virtually unanimous in the opinion that author Jean Watson, when she uttered it, must have been in an, er, alternative state of consciousness. I can’t imagine what gave them that idea. I mean look at her. No, the answer lies elsewhere, but was unknown even to your faithful judge until after he had posted that fateful entry: Ms. Watson can be nothing other than a High Priestess in the Mysterious Order that shall henceforth be known as the Hazy and Harrying Hermeneutics of Hermano©!

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Posted in: General, Humor, Science and the Media

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Death By Medicine

Critics of “conventional” medicine delight in pointing out how much harm it causes. Carolyn Dean, Gary Null, and others have written extensively about “death by medicine.” A typical statement (from Mercola.com) says:

A definitive review and close reading of medical peer-review journals, and government health statistics shows that American medicine frequently causes more harm than good. The number of people having in-hospital, adverse drug reactions (ADR) to prescribed medicine is 2.2 million. Dr. Richard Besser, of the CDC, in 1995, said the number of unnecessary antibiotics prescribed annually for viral infections was 20 million. Dr. Besser, in 2003, now refers to tens of millions of unnecessary antibiotics. The number of unnecessary medical and surgical procedures performed annually is 7.5 million. The number of people exposed to unnecessary hospitalization annually is 8.9 million. The total number of iatrogenic deaths shown in the following table is 783,936. It’s evident that the American medical system is the leading cause of death and injury in the United States. The 2001 heart disease annual death rate is 699,697; the annual cancer death rate, 553,251.

To show what’s wrong with this reasoning, let’s substitute “food” for “medicine.” (more…)

Posted in: General

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Not Treating – A Neglected Option

One of the criticisms of modern medicine is that doctors prescribe too many pills. That’s true. Patients and doctors sometimes get caught up in a mutual misunderstanding. The patient assumes that he needs a prescription, and the doctor assumes that the patient wants a prescription. But sometimes patients don’t either need or want a prescription.

I’ll use myself as an illustration. I get occasional episodes of funny, blurry spots in my visual field that gradually expand to a sparkling zigzag pattern and go away after 20 minutes. They are typical scintillating scotomas, the aura that precedes some migraines. I am lucky because I never get the headache. My doctor said we could try to prevent my symptoms with the same medications we use to prevent migraine, but there was no need to treat them from a medical standpoint. Nothing bad would happen if we didn’t treat. I told her I didn’t want them treated. They are a minor annoyance; I can carry on with my normal activities, even reading, throughout the episodes, and I have no desire to take pills with potential side effects and with the cost and the hassle of remembering when to take them.

If it had been a typical patient and a typical doctor, the sequence of events might have been very different. The patient might have been more frightened by the strange phenomenon than I was. (I thought the weird tricks my brain could play on me were fascinating and fun to watch, not scary.) The patient might have desperately wanted those threatening symptoms to go away without understanding how insignificant and non-threatening they really were. The doctor might have assumed the patient wanted them to go away. The pills might have been offered and accepted with little thought. (more…)

Posted in: General

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The Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo #7

What Talent!

I, like Joe, am utterly humbled by the translations of the entry in the W^5/2 #6! Namidim (twice), Stu (m’man!), Michelle B (using the Now-Venerated, Awesome Power of Simple Substitution that had Suddenly Swept Stu to SuperStar Status lo! These many W^5/2s ago!), and Michael X (it’s Larry’s turn to cry!) each nailed that passage lacka split hawg through the Penetrating Power of Poignant Parody©.

Therefore:

I thought it wouldn’t happen for a while, if ever, and I tremble as I write this, but…I have no choice but to confer the legendary, coveted, Soaring Standard of Stu® upon each of the four prodigal W^5/2 scholars named above! My hat is also off to homeboy David Gorski, who followed that passage with a Perfectly Pertinent Post-post Posting©, demonstrating such uncanny, spontaneous timing and recall that he must be Duly Acknowledged as one of the Baddest Bosses of the Blogosphere®. (more…)

Posted in: General, Humor, Science and the Media

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Diagnostic Dilemmas

Sometimes diagnosis is straightforward. If a woman has missed several periods and has a big belly with a fetal heartbeat, it’s pretty easy to diagnose pregnancy. But most of the time diagnosis is much more difficult. Alzheimer’s can’t be diagnosed for sure until the patient dies and you do an autopsy. If only we had one of those Star Trek gadgets to point at our patients and give us a quick and accurate answer! Alas! We are far from perfect. All too often, we really have no idea what’s causing a patient’s symptoms. We do a complete workup and still don’t know. What then?

We all know people who have symptoms that a series of doctors have failed to diagnose, who continue to doctor-shop, hoping to find that one doctor somewhere who will find something the others have missed. Occasionally they do; but far more often these people spend a great deal of time and money chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. Sometimes as they are searching, the illness gradually runs its course and goes away. When this happens, whatever they tried last gets the undeserved credit for the “cure.” Sometimes the symptoms persist and these searches consume their life, encourage unhealthy self-absorption, and permanently ensconce them in the “sick” role.

One of the attractions of alternative medicine is that it offers far more certainty than scientific medicine. If your scientific doctor can’t see anything on x-rays, your chiropractor can. He’ll tell you he knows exactly what’s wrong: a subluxation that he can fix. Sherry Rogers will tell you all illness is due to toxins accumulating in your cells and you must “detoxify or die.” Hulda Clark will tell you it’s all parasites that she can eliminate with her magic zapper. Robert Young says the cause of all disease is acidosis. They all have confident, precise answers. Wrong ones.

The One Cause of All Disease?

It’s really easy to figure out what’s causing a patient’s symptoms if you believe there is one simple cause for all disease. While I was writing this I got sidetracked and searched the Internet for “the one cause of all disease.” I found a lot of them, including: (more…)

Posted in: General, Science and Medicine

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The Trojan Horses of Education

Last time I described what I could find about the “Quiet Revolution” plan for medicine through the eyes and minds of the Bravewell Collaborative and Christy Mack, wife of the multi-millionaire or billionaire CEO John Mack. The idea seemed two-pronged; “humanize” physicians and medicine generally, and integrate folkway, sectarian and “alternative” methods into the system. What bothered me more, having become inured to patient philandering with quackery, was the brazen attempt to re-educate physicians and indoctrinate students into the political and social views of wealthy idealists. The entry below, one might conclude, has little to do with medical quackery and pseudoscience, but I beg your indulgence for this series as I attempt to connect dots between the stalls of the seemingly unrelated steeds of political indoctrination in universities and the proposed med school re-education camps of Bravewell. For several years a controversy has roiled at the University of Delaware over a program of educational activities for the dorms called Residence Life. The program structures student time with a number of usual activities – games, talks, discussion groups – but the content of the discussion groups and interpersonal counseling upset some students, who complained to an off-campus conservative organization, and got to the attention of faculty, which pressured the administration to stop the program last fall.

To outsiders such as we, the program looked like a feel-good, beneficent guidance tools. To the complaining students and critics the discussions seemed more like indoctrination groups, with political agendas taking on disguised roles as helpful guidance for student angst. Students complained about invasion of their privacy through group and leader pressures, and the faculty saw indoctrination and invasion of their educational duties (turf) by student counselors bearing ideological messages with little qualification.

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Posted in: General, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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The “Art” of Clinical Decision-Making

Much nonsense has been written about the “art” of medicine. All too often, it amounts to a rationalization for doctors doing what they want to do instead of following the evidence. Medicine is not an art like painting. Neither is it a science like physics. It’s an applied science. Since patients are not all identical, it can be very tricky to decide how to apply the science to the individual.

The New England Journal of Medicine periodically runs a feature called “Clinical Decisions.” They present a case history, then they present 2 or 3 expert opinions on how to manage the case. They stress that none of the options can be considered either correct or incorrect. They allow readers to “vote” as well as to submit comments about why they voted that way. It is understood that the voting is only for interest and to stimulate discussion: it does not result in a consensus.

In April 2008 the topic was the management of carotid artery stenosis. The patient is a 67 year old man who has no symptoms but who is found to have a narrowing of 70-80% in one carotid artery and 20% in the other, putting him at increased risk for stroke. He has other risk factors for cardiovascular disease: hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and overweight. The 3 options are medical management, stent placement, and carotid endarterectomy. (more…)

Posted in: General, Science and Medicine

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On Being Certain

Neurologist Robert A. Burton, MD has written a gem of a book: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. His thesis is that “Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” Your certainty that you are right has nothing to do with how right you are.

Within 24 hours of the Challenger explosion, psychologist Ulric Neisser had 106 students write down how they’d heard about the disaster, where they were, what they were doing at the time, etc. Two and a half years later he asked them the same questions. 25% gave strikingly different accounts, more than half were significantly different, and only 10% had all the details correct. Even after re-reading their original accounts, most of them were confident that their false memories were true. One student commented, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

Just as we may “know” things that clearly aren’t true, we may think we don’t know when we really do. In the phenomenon of blindsight, patients with a damaged visual cortex have no awareness of vision, but can reliably point to where a light flashes when they think they are just guessing. And there are states of “knowing” that don’t correspond to any specific knowledge: mystical or religious experiences. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, General, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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