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The Pseudomedical Pseudoprofessional Organization (PPO*)

(*Not to be confused with “Preferred Provider Organization,” which shares the acronym)

This is part of an ongoing series† discussing pitfalls of regulating physicians, but I’ve decided, in the interest of flexibility, to vary the title. A couple of weeks ago I gave some examples of how individual physicians practicing substandard, implausible medicine manage to avoid or delay being disciplined by state medical boards. I observed that the boards themselves seem reluctant or slow to act against such practices, even those that are illegal, and that this stands in contrast to their prompt actions against other types of malfeasance: those of the “low-hanging fruit” variety. In a comment, David Gorski reminded me that he had previously offered a few reasons for that discrepancy, with which I agree. Nevertheless, it seems odd that state boards don’t do better.

In an attempt to find more explanations, this week we’ll look at another tactic of practitioners of pseudomedicine: banding together to create pseudomedical pseudoprofessional organizations (PPOs), complete with pseudo-legitimate names, pseudo-legitimate conferences, pseudo-legitimate appearing websites, pseudo-”board certifications,” protocols for pseudo-therapies, patient brochures hyping pseudo-therapies, pseudo-consent forms for pseudo-therapies, pseudo-Institutional Review Boards to approve pseudo-research, pseudo-journals to publish reports of pseudo-research, very real financial contributions from pseudoscientific corporations to help pay for very real advertising, very real lobbying, very real legal representation, and more.

There are many more PPOs than we’ll be able to examine, but they have common features. We’ll also look at how some Institutions That Should Know Better respond to PPOs, which can be frightening. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Pitfalls in Regulating Physicians. Part 2: The Games Scoundrels Play

A Few Things that No Doctor Should Do

When a physician is accused of DUI, “substance abuse,” being too loose with narcotic prescriptions, throwing scalpels in the OR, or diddling patients, the response of a state medical board† tends to be swift and definitive. Shoot first, ask questions later. After all, the first responsibility of the board is to the public’s safety, not to preserving the physician’s livelihood. One might therefore expect that a physician accused of using dangerous, substandard treatments would face a similar predicament. As you’ve undoubtedly guessed, such is not the case.

Here on Science-Based Medicine I’ve discussed at least 4 risky and implausible treatments: Laetrile, the “Gonzalez Regimen,” Na2EDTA “chelation therapy,” and intravenous hydrogen peroxide. Any medical board worth its salt ought to recognize each of those as dangerous and sub-standard, and therefore ought quickly to impose serious disciplinary measures upon any licensed physician found using them. Sometimes that is the case, but all too often it isn’t.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Misleading Ads in Scientific American

I’m frequently asked, “Is what that ad says really true?” Three recent inquiries have been about products advertised in Scientific American. An ad may acquire a certain cachet by appearing in a prestigious science magazine, but that doesn’t mean much. Scientific American’s editorial standards apparently don’t extend to its advertising department. I remain skeptical about the claims for all three of these: Juvenon, the StressEraser, and the ROM exercise machine. I discussed the ROM machine last week.

Juvenon

This product is advertised as “The Supplement That Can Slow Down the Clock on Aging Cells.” Andrew Weil also sells this on his website. It supposedly helps keep your mitochondria from decaying, promotes brain cell function, sustains energy levels, and is a powerful antioxidant.

The first time I noticed an ad for Juvenon in Scientific American I wrote the following letter to the editor: (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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Pitfalls in Regulating Physicians. Part 1

I had intended today’s posting to be a summary of a real case faced by a state medical board. It is a case of licensed physicians treating patients with a substandard, dangerous, and unequivocally illegal method. My intent was to use it as an illustration of how difficult it can be for medical boards to discipline such practitioners, even when the treatment involved is obviously, blatantly bad. Only yesterday, I was informed by the pertinent board that because this case has yet to be resolved, I may not discuss it. So be it: I’ll save the specifics for another time. Instead I’ll offer a general example of a dubious treatment as a prelude to Part 2 of this series,† which will attempt to discover some of the reasons that medical boards might, under such circumstances, be ineffectual.

Intravenous Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is a highly reactive compound that is caustic to living tissues. It spontaneously decomposes to water and oxygen, a reaction that is greatly accelerated in the presence of peroxidases (mainly catalase), which are ubiquitous in human blood and tissues. It has been used as a disinfectant for superficial skin wounds and in the mouth, and also for fabric and medical equipment. It has been used as a bleaching agent for teeth and hair. When used as an irrigant in surgical fields, in other large wounds, or consumed in any form (including intravenously), however, it has resulted in predictable, catastrophic complications: arterial and venous gas emboli, emphysema, respiratory arrest, strokes, multiple cerebral infarcts, seizures, colonic ulcers, intestinal gangrene, acute hemolytic crises, shock, cardiac arrest, and death.[1-7]

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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4 Minute Exercise Machine

I know I should exercise regularly, but I’m congenitally lazy and am ingenious at coming up with excuses. There’s an exercise machine that sounds like the end of all excuses, a dream come true. You’ve probably seen the ads in various magazines. The ROM Machine: “Exercise in Exactly 4 Minutes per Day.” It claims that you can get the same benefit, at home, from 4 minutes a day on the ROM as you can from 20 to 45 minutes aerobic exercise plus 45 minutes weight training plus 20 minutes stretching at the gym. It allegedly balances blood sugar and repairs bad backs. It is for everyone from age 10 to over 100.

Does this sound too good to be true? That’s usually a clue that it is too good to be true. I was skeptical and I sent in for the company’s free DVD. There were more clues in the DVD. They had testimonials from 2 chiropractors, several trainers, and lots of satisfied users, but they didn’t have recommendations from a single medical doctor or scientist. In fact, they mentioned a couple of doctors who disputed their claims, including one cardiologist who told his patient that kind of strenuous exercise could kill him. To prove you could get a good workout from the machine, they put people on it, got them to huff and puff and sweat a lot, and then got them to say, “That was a real workout!” (more…)

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Misleading Ads for Back Pain Treatment

There was a full-page ad in my local paper today for Back in Action Spine and Health Centers, targeted at sufferers from almost any kind of chronic back pain. It started with “Are You Ready to Throw in the Towel and Just Live with Hurting So Bad?” It went on to make a number of claims:

  • Doctors can fix the problem.
  • Breakthrough medical technologies.
  • Treatments are FDA cleared.
  • Treatments are scientifically proven.
  • No side effects.
  • Best kept secrets for healing “bad backs.”
  • Corrects scoliosis.
  • Corrects compressed discs.
  • Several university studies at Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Duke have confirmed that these treatments work.
  • Medical researchers have reported these methods up to 89% effective.
  • Treatments work for back and neck pain, sciatica/numbness, herniated and/or bulging discs, degenerative disc disease (arthritis), spinal stenosis, facet syndromes, spondylolisthesis.
  • Their questionnaire can determine who will benefit – if you fit even one criterion like “does your back feel out of alignment?” or “do you have arthritis?” you should call right away.

The ad offers a “Free Qualifying Exam” but you “Must Not Wait” because appointments are limited and they can only honor this free offer for 3 weeks. To encourage you to call, they sweeten the pot with a FREE $49 gift bag.

Are you suspicious yet? You should be. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 4: is “CAM” the only Alternative? And: the Physician as Expert Consultant

Dr. Moran Weighs In

In last week’s post, I dubbed Dr. Peter Moran the “conscience” of SBM, citing his commitment to doing what’s best for individual patients even if, in theory at least, that may involve some manner of benign but fanciful treatments. I countered with my own opinion that honesty and integrity are necessary parts of any discussion with a patient, and that they, in turn, must not conflict with science and reason.* I added passages from a couple of key medical ethics treatises to support my assertion. Dr. Moran’s response, thoughtful and provocative as always, was buried in the midst of other commenters’ tangential arguments about the theory of evolution. Rather than continue its exile there, I reprint it here to give it the exposure that it deserves:

A blatant appeal to authority, but one that I mostly agree with. The difference between us is that I insist that medicine is about an infinite number of individual contexts and I see many examples where ethical absolutes (actually these are ethical guidelines rather than directives) do not apply or don’t seem to apply very well.

We scientists are ever-so cautious when making scientific judgments about complex matters; let’s not pretend that arriving at absolutes in medical ethics is a piece of cake, especially when it is not quite clear how anything done with the undiluted welfare of the individual patient in mind can be entirely unethical. I mean, why are we obliged to consider the impact of our decisions upon the fate of the planets (or whatever) when THIS patient needs help? In fact, at least one medical ethicist has gone so far as to state that it is not unethical for a doctor to prescribe a placebo treatment, so long as the doctor believes it will benefit the patient. I don’t quite agree with that bald statement — there should be a rider specifying that this may apply to *some* contexts where there is no obviously superior evidence-based method.

Here are some examples of the intellectual minefield we have to negotiate.

1. All the doctors I know would be prepared to call in the witch-doctor if it would help assuage the fears, or help in the management, of a seriously ill primitive tribesman. It seems we are prepared to pander to the superstitions of SOME cultures while despising any similar inclinations in our own.

2. I have previously asked this question which has to do with public policy in relation to safe “alternatives”. Take my word for it that every pharmacy in Europe displays “Homeopathie” (or language equivalents) in large letters outside. Would skeptics prefer those using such remedies for their minor and self-limiting complaints to be using NSAIDs or antibiotics or antidepressants instead, treatments that will often in such contexts themselves perform no better than placebo, but at substantially greater risks? Behind the usual healthfraud position there is both an exaggeration of the capacity of modern medicine and insufficient recognition of the harm that it can do. We definitely do not yet have entirely safe and 100% effective solutions to all of mankind’s ills, and certain imperfections of everyday medical practice can heighten the risks of the use of unnecessarily powerful pharmaceuticals. So what is the safest and most pragmatically realistic position here?

3. Following on from that — what is the evidence-based answer to non-specific tiredness and unhappiness? If people feel better for taking a multivitamin or an innocuous herb, why should we care? We keep on offering the public temporary answers to these things, prescribing (historically) amphetamines, cocaine, opiates, barbiturates and phenothiazines in massive quantities, only to take them away when problems such as addiction ensue. Is it right to then turn around and say, well you didn’t really need these things anyway, even denying them any relief that they may derive from “pretend medicines”. The science that matters will be argued out in other arenas.

That’s to give you some idea of the kind of thing that I am on about. You seem to think I am talking about doctors promoting CAM or placebo treatment as a matter of policy. I am not prepared to go that far, although I think I understand why some doctors might do that.

I agree that “medicine is about an infinite number of individual contexts and [there are] many examples where ethical absolutes do not apply or don’t seem to apply very well.” Nor did I really think that Dr. Moran was “talking about doctors promoting ‘CAM’ or placebo treatments as a matter of policy.” We disagree elsewhere, but he makes some interesting points.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 3: Implausible Claims and Formal Ethics Statements

The Ethics of Implausible Medical Claims (IMC)

In Part 2 of this series* we learned from David Katz, MD, a key member of the Yale School of Medicine’s “integrative medicine” program, that he had been “pushed toward integrative medicine by the needs of [his] patients.” We also learned that Dr. Katz’s rationale for this decision justifies a wide range of quackery—both in principle and in fact. I had previously alluded to arguments like those of Dr. Katz in a comment on SBM several months ago:

…we must be true to medical ethics, no matter what else we do. If that means losing a few patients, so be it. Patients are free agents, and we can only do so much to influence them. To the extent that we don’t do that as well as we might (which is obviously true in some cases), we might do better. But our ethical obligation is to science and truth; it is not, as many modern physicians would have it and as much as we may lament sometimes losing patients to woo, to seducing patients to stick with us no matter what, if the “what” includes engaging in a charade about “integration” or “complementary therapies”…

Realizing that some might argue that physicians’ obligations to patients ought to trump their obligations to “science and truth,” I later revised that statement:

Several weeks ago I argued here that a physician’s primary ethical obligation is to science and truth. In retrospect I probably should have put it a slightly different way: a physician’s primary ethical obligation is the same as everyone else’s. It is to honesty and integrity. For physicians, however, that means being true to real medical knowledge, among other things, and real medical knowledge comes from science.

In spite of that revision, two readers whose opinions I respect challenged my assertion. Dr. Peter Moran’s worthy efforts to educate patients about the realities of “alternative” cancer treatments are considerable. Here on SBM he has repeatedly challenged us to explain how, when confronted with testimonials of “alternative” cures, we ought to respond without using “a high-handed, ‘we know best’ stance” and thus “appear to want to distance [ourselves] from the intimate concerns of [our] patients.” I was thinking mainly of him when I wrote the revision above, because on this key topic—how to respond ethically, but with compassion, to patients who want to believe in implausible treatments—I’ve come to think of Dr. Moran as the “conscience” of Science-Based Medicine. Those with cancer, he has reminded us, “are folk very like you and me who are simply grasping at any straw that might save or prolong their lives.” His take on why IMCs are appealing to those with less ominous problems is well-developed and agrees with my own, mostly. We part ways, however, when he concludes (also here and here) that ethical physicians might have good reasons—unlike Dr. Katz’s—to entertain benign, if implausible treatments:

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 2: the Tortured Logic of David Katz

In Part 1 of this series* I asserted that a physician’s primary ethical responsibility is to honesty and integrity, which in turn must be largely based on science and reason (I apologize if that sounded preachy; if there had been more time I might have couched it in more congenial terms). I mentioned the fallacious reasoning whereby proponents of implausible medical claims (IMC) point to real and imagined weaknesses of modern medicine to justify their own agenda. I offered, as a favorite example of such proponents, science-based medicine’s having not yet solved every health problem. This week I’ll show how this version of the tu quoque fallacy has led a prestigious medical school to advocate pseudoscience-based medicine.

Modern Medicine: a Brief, Fragile Commitment to Science

First, a few more words about the title of this series. Modern medicine is not science, even if it draws upon science for its knowledge: it is an applied science similar, in that sense, to engineering. Modern medicine is also not synonymous with the “medical profession,” if the term means the collection of all people with MD degrees. That is true for the obvious reason that medicine is more than people, but also because a small but loud minority of MDs rejects modern medicine and science.

Modern medicine has made an uneven commitment to science and reason. At its best, it has formally embraced them in the faculties and curricula of medical schools, in its codes of ethics, and in its contributions to knowledge, both basic and applied, over the past 150 years or so. As discussed last week, it is because of science and reason that modern medicine has made dramatic, revolutionary advances in a very short time. That is what distinguishes it from every other “healing tradition,” and why there is no legitimate competition. The only valid medicine in the modern world is science-based medicine—not “allopathic,” “Western,” “conventional,” “regular,” “integrative,” “complementary and alternative,” or any of the so-called “whole medical systems.” The pre-scientific (and, ironically, “post-modern”) designation of “schools” or “systems” of medicine, so stridently trumpeted by quacks, is an anachronism—even if it persists in archaic, governmental edicts.

Compared to the actual sciences, however, modern medicine’s commitment to science is fragile. Its recent confusion of error-prone clinical trials with science itself—the project called “evidence-based medicine”—has been a mixed blessing. Its growing tolerance of charlatans and crackpots, at times elevating them to celebrity status, would be unthinkable in physics or biology. Its dalliances with quackery, so depressingly recounted in recent posts here, here, here, and here, are why your SBM bloggers do what we do. Biologists, other scientists, and intellectuals in general have joined the battle against the pseudoscientific travesty known as “intelligent design.” Many physicians, however, even of the brainy, academic variety, act as though the equally pseudoscientific but more dangerous travesty known as “integrative medicine” is either a good thing or, at least, is a necessary addition to medical school curricula.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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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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