Do you take a vitamin or dietary supplement? It’s increasingly likely that you do, as over half of all American adults took some sort of supplement over the past 30 days. Now there’s evidence to suggest that about one-third of all Americans are taking supplements and prescription drug at the same time, which is renewing questions about risks and benefits. The same study reveals that combining supplements and prescription drugs is more common among those with certain medical conditions, compared to those without.
Many of us supplement in the absence of evidence of benefit, or even medical need. For example, there is little persuasive evidence to suggest that routine supplementation with products like multivitamins is necessary. There are exceptions of course: Those potentially becoming pregnant, those on dietary restrictions (e.g., vegans), and those with demonstrable medical need are among the cases where there is a clear benefit to vitamin supplementation, for example. The majority of us take supplements, like multivitamins, for “insurance” rather than because we have a deficiency or medical need. The evidence for non-vitamin supplements, like herbal products, is just as questionable as it is for vitamins, with few products showing meaningful health benefits. Ultimately decisions about supplements come down to evaluations of risk and benefits. Since I started working as a pharmacist, I’ve always cautioned consumers about the quality concerns and efficacy with herbal products and supplements, and the resultant risks that make me very hesitant to suggest their routine use – especially when they’re combined with prescription drugs. Yet the evidence suggests that it’s occurring – with increasing frequency. (more…)
Dr. David L. Katz is apparently unhappy with me. You remember Dr. Katz, don’t you? If you don’t, I’ll remind you momentarily. If you do, you won’t be surprised. Let me explain a bit first how Dr. Katz recently became aware of me again.
Last week, I posted a short (for me) piece about something that disturbed both Steve Novella and myself, namely Traditional Chinese herbalism at the Cleveland Clinic? What happened to science-based medicine? Steve had blogged about it as well a couple of days earlier. In actuality, it was a post that had originally appeared at my not-so-super-secret other blog, and, in my characteristically slightly arrogant way, I thought it was good enough that it deserved to be showcased here at Science-Based Medicine. To my surprise, Maithri Vengala over at The Healthcare Blog noticed and asked me if I would mind letting her post it over there. Never being one to turn down a request to showcase my work to a wider (or at least different) audience, I gave her my permission. The result was that my post ended up being published here, and I thought nothing more of it.
Until yesterday, that is.
Yesterday, thanks to the magic of Google Alerts, I became aware that Dr. David Katz was very unhappy with my post. At the very least, he strongly disagreed with it, so much so that he felt the need to respond. Naturally, he chose as his venue The Huffington Post, which is well known as a bastion of quackery, antivaccine pseudoscience, and Deepak Chopra-inspired magical thinking, to respond. Indeed, so bad is HuffPo (as it’s “nicknamed”) that Steve Novella and I have both referred to it as waging a “war on medical science,” and HuffPo has been a frequent topic of discussion on this very blog for its abysmal record of publishing pseudoscience, a record that goes back to its very beginning in 2005, when antivaccinationists flocked to the fledgling blog and news site. And that doesn’t even count all the nonsense from Deepak Chopra and even promotion of outright cancer quackery.
Think you need to see a doctor? How about seeing him (or her) on your computer (or tablet or smart phone) screen instead of in the doctor’s office?
The technology of telemedicine, or telehealth, is here. So far, there is no single definition of what it does, and does not, encompass. For example, in some definitions, one of which we discuss today, it includes only video communication. Other definitions are broader, including fax, telephone, and e-mail. Here, we focus mainly on the direct patient-physician telemedicine encounter, unmediated by the presence of a physician who has actually seen the patient face-to-face. This is unlike, for example, the more common specialist consultation, in which the patient and physician have met face-to-face and the specialist is brought in via technology. A typical example of this is the radiologist who reads x-rays from a remote location. (Sometimes so remote that the radiologist isn’t even in the same country.) There is some evidence, but not much yet, that certain kinds of physician-mediated telemedicine can benefit the patient.
One can think of many ways a patient’s accessing a doctor via computer might improve access to healthcare. This could be a godsend for patients in rural areas who must drive an hour or more to find a doctor’s office. For example, here’s a program from the University of Mississippi Medical Center:
The Diabetes Telehealth Network will [put telemedicine] technology in the hands of the patients themselves in the form of Internet-capable tablets equipped with the Care Innovations™ Guide platform.
The Care Innovations™ Guide platform enables health-care providers to offer a clinically driven, fully integrated remote care management solution for populations with chronic conditions. The project will recruit up to 200 patients in Sunflower County, MS, who will use Care Innovations technology to share health data, such as weight, blood pressure, and glucose levels, daily with clinicians.
I don’t recall if I’ve ever mentioned my connection with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation (CCF). I probably have, but just don’t remember it. Long-time readers might recall that I did my general surgery training at Case Western Reserve University at University Hospitals of Cleveland. Indeed, I did my PhD there as well in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Up the road less than a mile from UH is the Cleveland Clinic. As it turns out, during my stint in Physiology and Biophysics at CWRU, I happened to do a research rotation in a lab at the CCF, which lasted a few months. OK, so it’s not much of a connection. It was over 20 years ago and only lasted a few months, but it’s something that gives me an obvious and blatant hook to start out this post, particularly given the number of cardiac patients I delivered to the CCF back in the early 1990s when I moonlighted as a flight physician for Metro LifeFlight.
Obvious and clunky introduction aside (hey, they can’t all be brilliant; so I’ll settle for nauseatingly self-deprecating), several of my readers have been sending me a link to a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal the other day: A Top Hospital Opens Up to Chinese Herbs as Medicines: Evidence is lacking that herbs are effective. I also noticed that our fearless leader Steve Novella blogged about it and was tempted to let it pass, given that I had seemingly lost my window, but then I realized that there’s always something I can add to a post, even after the topic’s been blogged by Steve Novella. Whether that something is of value or not, I leave to the reader. So here we go. Besides, if this article truly indicates a new trend in academic medical centers, it’s—if you’ll excuse the term—quantum leap in the infiltration of quackademic medicine into formerly reputable medical centers. It’s a depressing thing, and it needs to be publicized.
The infiltration of pseudoscience and simply bad medicine into mainstream medicine continues. Hospitals are an easy breech point because they are run by administrators who may have more talent and interest in marketing than in science. Many hospitals in my area, for example, proudly display their “integrative” centers, offering nutrition advice and massage alongside more dubious offerings, such as reflexology and reiki.
So-called “alternative” treatments are tempting because they are often not covered by insurance, and so patients will have to pay cash for them, and they are often inexpensive to run – so they are a nice cash cow for hospitals.
The Wall Street Journal reports another, more serious, chapter in this infiltration – the opening of Chinese herbal clinics, specifically in the Cleveland Clinic. The article itself is reasonably balanced, and lacks the gushing anecdotes that most such pieces have, but could certainly have been more hard-hitting in terms of the serious problems with herbal medicine.
Whole Foods Market is a relentlessly hip American supermarket chain which prides itself on organic fruits and vegetables, gluten-free just-about-everything, and high-end touches like wine bars and exotic take out items (roasted yucca, anyone?). The health products aisle is stocked with Bach Flower and homeopathic remedies. For example, in-house brand Flu Ease: “an established homeopathic formula that should be taken at the first sign of flu for temporary relief of symptoms including fever chills and body aches.”
Selling Flu Ease and like products certainly exhibits a lack of appreciation for scientific evidence, not to mention basic science. But I recently saw a product in the checkout line that was so filled with over-the-top quackery and so shocking in its disregard for the public’s health that I haven’t been back to Whole Foods since. And I won’t be going back.
The product? A glossy, slickly-produced magazine with the conspiracy-minded title What Doctors Don’t Tell You. The April 2014 issue promises, in banner-headline font size, a “New Light on Cancer.” It features the well-known symbol of fighting breast cancer, a loop of pink ribbon, but with a tear in the middle of the loop. We’ll look into this “new light” in a bit.
As a pediatrician I have an opportunity to observe a wide variety of unusual and sometimes alarming parental efforts meant to help children through illness or keep them well. I have recently noticed one particular intervention that seems to be becoming more prevalent, at least in my practice. I’ve begun to see more and more infants sporting Baltic amber teething necklaces. These consist of multiple small beads of amber on a string that is worn around a baby’s neck, and are supposed to relieve the discomfort of teething. Before I had any idea what these necklaces were for or how they were supposed to work, my first reaction was to inform these parents of the dangers of necklaces or anything placed around an infant’s or young child’s neck. Strangulation is a known cause of accidental injury and death in children, and pediatricians are trained to discuss this as part of the routine anticipatory guidance we give to parents. In addition, we strongly advise against giving infants or young children any small items that could be accidentally aspirated, such as the beads found in a necklace of this sort. But I was equally surprised to learn that these necklaces are not intended for babies to chew or gum. Instead, they are supposed to ease a baby’s teething discomfort simply by lying against the skin.
I will not discuss teething here, or the many myths that surround it; that was well covered in a previous post. I will reiterate that there is little-to-no evidence that the majority of concerns parents have about teething are actually due to teething, including fever and diarrhea. The irritability associated with teething also tends to wax and wane for only several days before and after the emergence of a tooth. But let’s assume for the moment that these necklaces actually work to ease the discomfort of teething, and whatever other problems parents tend to associate with the long period of time during which infants and young children develop their teeth. Assuming these necklaces work as recounted in the glowing testimonials on countless websites and parent blogs, how do they produce their dramatic results?
I glanced at my pharmacy license recently, and noticed I became a licensed pharmacist almost exactly twenty years ago. Two decades seems like a long time to do pretty much anything, yet I can still vividly recall some of the patients I encountered early in my career, working evenings in a retail pharmacy that drew heavily on the alternative medicine crowd. It was the first pharmacy I’d ever seen that sold products like homeopathy, detox kits, salt lamps, ear candles, and magnetic foot pads. And the customers were just as unorthodox. There were some that told me they manipulated their own pH, and others that insisted any prescription drug was designed to kill. And there was a huge clientele that relied on the pharmacy for their “bioidentical” hormones. It was an instructive learning experience, as it was as far from the science of pharmacy school as you could expect to find in a place that still called itself a pharmacy. One of the really interesting aspects of that pharmacy was the enormous supply of vitamins and supplements for sale. It stretched over multiple aisles and even back into where the drugs were kept, as there were some brands kept behind the counter. This wasn’t for any regulatory reason – it was because these were the “naturopathic” supply, the brands often recommended by naturopaths. In order for this pharmacy to sell them they had to keep the products behind the counter, presumably to grant these supplements a veneer of medical legitimacy. After all, they were “special”, and had the prices to prove it. (more…)
Oil pulling is a traditional Ayurveda method of oral care. It involves swishing sesame oil or a similar oil, perhaps mixed with other substances, in the mouth for 10-20 minutes as a means of preventing caries (cavities), reducing bacteria, and promoting healthy gums. In our internet-fueled age of misinformation, oil pulling has seen a surge in popularity as it makes the rounds on Facebook and other popular social media sites.
The proliferation of unscientific medical advice also essentially assured that oil pulling would be updated to incorporate the latest marketing memes in the alternative marketplace. It is therefore not surprising that this technique is being presented as a cure-all, treating all sorts of systemic diseases by allegedly pulling toxins from the mouth. The Wellness Mama (the first hit on Google) proclaims:
Oil pulling is an age-old remedy that uses natural substances to clean and detoxify teeth and gums. It has the added effect of whitening teeth naturally and evidence even shows that it is beneficial in improving gums and removing harmful bacteria!
Food Matters also gushes:
It is believed that these oils help the lymphatic system of the body as harmful bacteria are removed and beneficial microflora are given with [sic] a healthy environment to flourish. Because of this holistic perspective, oil pulling has been used as a preventative health measure for many other conditions.
This is followed by a long list of conditions from migraines to bronchitis. (more…)
I wrote about ASEA in August, 2012. To quote the company’s website, “ASEA is trillions of stable, perfectly balanced Redox Signaling Molecules suspended in a pristine saline solution—the same molecules that exist in the cells of the human body.” Molecules that supposedly have all kinds of antioxidant benefits for health and for athletic performance through “redox signalling.” They claim it is “a mixture of 16 chemically recombined products of salt and water with completely new chemical properties.” But they never specify exactly which molecules those are, what they mean by balanced, or how they can determine that they remain stable. The product label only lists salt and water. If those 16 recombined molecules are really in the product, the FDA can and should act against them for false labeling.
An ASEA distributor (part of the company’s multi-level marketing cadre) recently wrote an e-mail, not to me, and not to the editors of SBM, but to an assistant editor, to demand that my article be taken down, or that at least the comments for that article be re-opened. Since the e-mail was not sent to me, and I don’t have the writer’s permission, I won’t name him or quote him directly but will paraphrase what he said. He said my article had prevented thousands of people from benefitting from the health effects of ASEA. Thousands? I don’t think I’m that influential; I only wish I were! Anyway, it has not been established that ASEA offers any health benefits. He complains that I don’t have any evidence that ASEA doesn’t work, and of course I don’t. The burden of proof is not on me to prove it doesn’t work, but on those making the claims to prove it does.
He says there is real scientific evidence showing that it does work. My article said there was nothing about ASEA listed in PubMed, and he countered that there are 102 mentions. I was skeptical, so I checked for myself. What I found left me rolling on the floor in paroxysms of laughter. (more…)