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Archive for Medical Ethics

GSK Investigated for Bribing Doctors

The BBC reports that 11 doctors and a GlaxoSmithKline regional manager in Poland have been charged with alleged corruption. The apparent scheme was simple — GSK sales reps are given targets for new prescriptions for whatever drugs they are promoting. In order to meet those targets, it is alleged that one sales rep agreed to pay doctors £100 to give educational lectures to patients. The lectures never took place, and it was understood that in exchange for the payment the doctors would prescribe more of the rep’s drug.

The case is still under investigation but one doctor has already admitted guilt, stating that the £100 was simply too tempting.

Assuming the charges are upheld, such cases are very damaging to public confidence in the system. This is similar to cases of researchers faking their published research — I cringe every time I read about such cases.

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Posted in: Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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When healing turns into killing: religious and philosophical exemptions from parental accountability

Parents have a fundamental right to guide the upbringing of their children protected under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This includes the choice of medical care for the child. They also have a First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs, including the right to care for their children in accordance with the tenets of their religion. In a better world, these rights would be exercised in a manner that is consistent with a reasoned selection of medical care among choices supported by the best available scientific evidence. If, for example, deeply religious parents choose to forego a treatment that had only a minimal chance of extending their child’s life and terrible side effects in favor of palliative care because they believe that their child would be better off in heaven we could all agree that their choice is constitutionally protected.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Religious believers and those whose “philosophy” favors pseudoscience in child medical care (surveys bloviating about the popularity of CAM to the contrary) are in fact a tiny minority of the American population who influence public policy in a manner that far exceeds their actual numbers. This influence allows these special interest groups to cause needless suffering and death among children and their families. As well, their actions siphon off medical and legal resources that could more properly be directed toward the common good when states and medical institutions are put in the position of having to go to court to protect children from their parents. And, by giving parents false choices between a belief in magic and standard medical care, unnecessary complications are introduced into what are already difficult and heart-wrenching decisions by parents who truly want to act in the best interests of their children. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Legal, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Religion, Vaccines

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Measles gets a helping hand

In a recent post I shared a bit of my personal, near-death experience with measles during the US epidemic of 1989-1991. As I describe in that post, I contracted a very serious measles infection at the end of medical school, and was highly infectious when I interviewed for a residency position at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Like others my age who received an ineffective, killed measles vaccine between 1963 and 1967, I had not been adequately protected. The MMR vaccine was not yet available, and no boosters were recommended at the time. Unfortunately, though my measles titers (a test of immunity to measles) were checked when I entered medical school, the school’s student health department failed to notice or respond to the results – I was not immune and did not receive a booster dose at that time, as I should have. That mistake was huge, and could have cost me my life. It also caused me to potentially sicken many vulnerable children during my tour of the hospital, as well as others I may have inadvertently exposed during the window of communicability as I walked the streets of Seattle. The Department of Health had to be called to trace all of my steps and attempt to track down and protect any potential contacts.
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Tribalism and Medical Ethics

Science is intended to discover the “is”, not the “ought;” facts, not values. Science can’t tell us whether an action is moral; it can only provide evidence to help inform moral decisions. For instance, some people who believe abortion is immoral reject birth control methods that prevent implantation of a fertilized ovum on the grounds that it constitutes abortion; science can determine that a particular birth control method prevents fertilization rather than preventing implantation of a fertilized ovum. A new book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene, provides some intriguing insights that are pertinent to medical ethics.

He thinks tribalism is the central tragedy of modern life. Evolution equipped us for cooperation within our own tribe but not for cooperation with other tribes. Cooperation with related individuals helps spread our own genes, but we are in competition with other tribes and cooperating with them might help spread their genes to the detriment of our own. It boils down to Us vs. Me and Us vs. Them. He uses the word “tribes” not in the original sense (Hutus vs. Tutsis), but to include Democrats vs. Republicans, Catholics vs. Protestants, CAM vs. science-based medicine, Arabs vs. Israelis, climate change activists vs. climate change deniers, and any other ideological or nationalistic group. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking, Evolution, Medical Ethics

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An update on the case of Sarah Hershberger: Parental rights trump the right of a child with cancer to live

Five weeks ago, when last I touched on the case of Sarah Hershberger, the now 11-year-old Amish girl from Medina County, Ohio near Akron with lymphoblastic lymphoma whose parents had taken her off of chemotherapy after only two rounds, reports had been coming out of the cancer quackery underground that Sarah’s parents, Andy and Anna Hershberger, had fled to avoid a court order that appointed a medical guardian for her to make sure that she received appropriate science-based therapy. At the time I was unable to confirm these stories in the mainstream press. However, over the last month there have been significant developments in this case and even over the last week; so I thought that now would be a good time to update SBM readers on developments in the case.

The Thanksgiving confirmation

One thing that I didn’t mention a month ago is that David Michael and others have been actively raising money to support the Hershbergers’ legal battles. Then, over the long Thanksgiving Day weekend news reports began to trickle out confirming what the “alternative” health sites had been reporting, namely that the Hershbergers had fled. These reports started with story from a local Medina newspaper, then spread to a northeast Ohio television stations, and then to national news sources (like Good Morning America and CNN) and international news outlets. The Medina Gazette first reported:
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Posted in: Cancer, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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The Nuances of Informed Consent

Modern medical ethics are built upon the concept of informed consent. This is not, however, as straightforward a concept as it may seem.

Physicians and health care providers have a duty to provide informed consent to their patients or their patients’ guardians, which means that they have to inform them appropriately about the risks and benefits of their recommendations and interventions. This includes informing them about the risks of not treating an illness.

This principle is, in turn, based largely upon the principle of autonomy – people have the right to control their own lives, and one cannot have control without information.

This is all simple enough, but where it becomes tricky is in deciding how much information to give patients, and how to present it. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Revealed by the FDA: The results of the most recent inspection of the Burzynski Clinic

After posting the talks that Bob Blaskiewicz and I gave at TAM this year, I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve written about the topic of those talks, namely Stanislaw Burzynski, the Houston cancer doctor who inexplicably has been permitted to continue to administer an unproven cancer treatment to children with deadly brain cancers for nearly 37 years now. Beginning in 1977, when he left Baylor College of Medicine and opened up the Burzynski Clinic, Burzynski has administered a cancer therapy that he calls antineoplastons to patients. After nearly four decades and several dozen phase II clinical trials started, he has never published a completed phase II trial. The only evidence he’s published consists mainly of cell culture studies, case reports, and couple of preliminary reports of his phase II clinical trials. Of course, Burzynski’s lawyer, Richard Jaffe, even dismissively admitted that these clinical trials are designed solely to allow Burzynski to keep giving antineoplastons.

So Burzynski operated from the late 1990s until summer 2012, charging exorbitant “case management” fees to enroll patients in his clinical trials, working with a credulous filmmaker who wanted to make a movie about him—twice—and flouting regulations designed to protect human subjects involved in clinical trials. Meanwhile, he branched out to “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” which he promoted through Suzanne Somers; to AminoCare, which is basically antineoplastons sold as an antiaging nostrum (or, as Burzynski puts it, a “genetic solution to aging“); and to selling an orphan drug as a “prodrug” for antineoplastons.

So what happened in the summer of 2012? Apparently, there was a treatment-related death of a child, which led the FDA to issue a partial clinical hold on the Burzynski Clinic that prevented him from enrolling any new children on his clinical trials, although he could keep treating existing patients and enroll new adult patients. That partial clinical hold was extended to adults in January 2013, at which time the FDA arrived at the Burzynski Clinic to investigate. It was an event that was included at the tail end of Eric Merola’s second propaganda film about Stanislaw Burzynski and represented as, in essence, jackbooted fascists trying to keep the cure for cancer from The People. None of this stops credulous reporters from writing misleading articles with titles like Young mother with brain cancer given just a year to live BEATS the disease and gets married after having controversial treatment in the US, which is a story about Laura Hymas, a woman whose good fortune is most likely not due to Burzynski. Not long before that, there was another credulous article featuring another Burzynski patient, Hannah Bradley, as one of four patients treated for cancer with alternative therapies who are allegedly doing well. Again, Hannah Bradley’s good fortune is highly unlikely to be due to Burzynski’s nostrums.

All of this is why those of us who follow Burzynski have been waiting with the proverbial bated breath to find out what the FDA concluded. Just before the government shutdown the first shoe dropped, when the FDA released a warning letter to the Burzynski Research Institute (BRI). Then last week, the second shoe dropped, when the FDA released the original forms describing its findings regarding the inspection. The findings are, to put it mildly, damning in the extreme. In fact, now, more than ever, I wonder how on earth Burzynski has been allowed to continue to run clinical trials—or even practice—for so long. The findings include massive deficiencies in the Burzynski institutional review board (IRB), the committee responsible for making sure that regulations designed to protect human subjects in research are adhered to.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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The sad saga of an Amish girl with a curable cancer whose parents are refusing chemotherapy in favor of “natural healing”

Over at my not-so-super secret other blog, one common type of story that I’ve blogged about has been that of the “chemotherapy refusenik.” It’s a topic I write about here not infrequently as well. People like Suzanne Somers and Chris Wark come to mind, mostly people who had effective surgical therapy for their cancers and then decided to forego adjuvant chemotherapy in favor of quackery. Not surprisingly, they attribute their having beaten cancer not to the surgery that saved them but to the woo du jour that they chose instead of chemotherapy, not understanding that such chemotherapy is not the cure; it only reduces the risk of recurrence after surgical extirpation of the tumor. What I haven’t discussed as much here as I have over there are cases of children with cancer whose parents refuse effective chemotherapy to treat their malignancy (other than Daniel Hauser). Because most childhood cancers are not treated with surgery, chemotherapy ± radiation therapy really is the primary therapeutic modality for most of them; so refusing it has a very high probability of resulting in the unnecessary death of a child. Generally pediatric cancers have an 80-90% five year survival, and recurrences after five years are rare, which, as I described recently, is an enormous improvement over 40 years ago.

Sadly, there have been many such cases, such as the aforementioned Daniel Hauser, Abraham Cherrix, Kate Wernecke, and Jacob Stieler. All of these are stories of children who were diagnosed with highly curable cancers who refused either chemotherapy or radiation therapy and were supported in that decision by their parents. Indeed, of these, Cherrix, Hauser, and Wernecke ran away with their parents to avoid chemotherapy. They all came back, but with different results. Hauser came back, started chemotherapy again, and is doing well. Cherrix ultimately came back, but the court made a deal with his parents that let him be treated by an “integrative medicine” doctors who treated him with low dose radiation and a bogus “immunotherapy.” As a result, several years later his tumor recurred, and he was last seen earlier this year asking for money for treatment. His battle in the courts in Virginia also inspired the passage of a supremely bad law that basically allows open season on teens for quackery. Wernecke disappeared when her parents refused radiation therapy after having undergone chemotherapy and took her for intravenous high dose vitamin C. In 2007, her cancer recurred, but the recurrence appeared to have been treated successfully. It’s not clear how much conventional therapy she had received, at least as of 2010, which was the last time I could find anything about her online.

The latest of these cases that has come to my attention is the case of a 10-year-old Amish girl from Medina County in Ohio named Sarah Hershberger, who developed T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive form of lymphoma, underwent chemotherapy for a few weeks, and then decided she didn’t want it anymore. Her parents, convinced that the chemotherapy was killing her, instead of insisting that she undergo potentially curative therapy, which her doctors estimated to have an 85% chance of eliminating her cancer, refused to let undergo any further therapy. This led to a court case in which Akron Children’s Hospital (ACH) sued to obtain medical guardianship of the girl in order to make sure that she would undergo curative chemotherapy. The first ruling in the case in a Medina County court was for the parents. Then on appeal the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals ordered Medina County Judge John Lohn to take another look at the case, ruling that he had failed to weigh adequately which course would best serve her interests — the decision of her parents to withhold treatment (at her request) or to appoint a limited guardian to make medical decisions, as proposed by Akron Children’s Hospital. Amazingly, Judge Lohn reiterated his previous ruling, finding that appointment of a guardian would interfere “with Sarah’s need and desire to be cared for by her loving parents” and stating that “the guardianship will not promote Sarah’s interests.” One month ago, Judge Lohn’s decision was reversed on appeal to the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals, which caused everyone’s favorite quackery supporter to lose his mind in rage.

Since then the case has only gotten stranger, as hard as it is to believe. Indeed, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on, although discussing the case allows me to discuss a both the science and ethics of treating children with cancer using science-based modalities.
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Posted in: Cancer, Medical Ethics, Religion

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Integrative Medicine’s Collateral Damage

Integrative medicine combines the practice of medicine with alternative medicine. Proponents tend to take a paragraph or two to say this, but that is what remains when boiled down to its essence. By putting this more concise definition together with Tim Minchin’s often-quoted observation about alternative medicine, you get: integrative medicine is the practice of medicine combined with medicine that either has not been proved to work or proved not to work. If it is proved to work, it is medicine.

I couldn’t find an official start date for integrative medicine, but it seems to have been around for about 15-20 years. (Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, an early adapter, opened in 1997.) Yet despite some lofty pronouncements about transforming patient care, there is still no good evidence that integrative medicine improves patient outcomes. It seems unlikely that such evidence is forthcoming. It is illogical to assume that adding therapies that do not work, or are proven not to work, would benefit a patient except by inducing the ethically problematic placebo response.

Whatever its goals initially, integrative medicine now appears to serve two purposes. First, it attracts funding from wealthy patrons (Samueli, Bravewell) and the government (the military, NCCAM). Second, it is a marketing device used by hospitals, academic medical centers and individual practitioners. As an added bonus, alternative medicine is usually fee-for-service because very little of it is covered by insurance. And whatever its charms as a money-making device, given the lack of proven health benefit it is fair to ask: is integrative medicine worth it? To answer that question, let us look at what might be called the supply side of integrative medicine practitioners’ delivery of alternative medicine. Here we run into some unpleasant facts proponents seem unwilling to acknowledge: integrative medicine’s collateral damage. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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Answering Our Critics, Part 2 of 2: What’s the Harm?

Last week I posted a list of 30 rebuttals to many of the recurrent criticisms that are made by people who don’t like what we say on SBM. I thought #30 deserved its own post; this is it. At the end, I’ve added a few items to the original list.

What’s the harm in people trying CAM? Science-based medicine has been criticized for being too rigid and intolerant. Why do we insist on randomized placebo-controlled trials to prove that a treatment is safe and effective? Isn’t it enough that patients tell us they feel better? Isn’t that what we all want, for our patients to feel better? Even if the treatment only works as a placebo, isn’t that a good thing? What’s the harm in that?

The albuterol/placebo study

I would argue that we don’t just want our patients to think they are better, we want them to actually be better. A study that illustrates that principle has been discussed on this blog before, here and here.

A group of patients using an effective albuterol asthma inhaler was compared to 2 placebo groups (a placebo inhaler group and a sham acupuncture group), and to a group that got no treatment at all. Patients reported the same relief of symptoms with each of the two placebo controls as with the albuterol inhaler; all three groups reported feeling significantly better than the no-treatment group. It could be argued that placebos are an effective treatment for the subjective symptoms of asthma. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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