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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.0: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD

Review

The recent albuterol vs. placebo trial reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that experimental subjects with asthma experienced substantial, measured improvements in lung function after inhaling albuterol, but not after inhaling placebo, undergoing sham acupuncture, or “no treatment.” It also found that the same subjects reported having felt substantially improved after either albuterol or each of the two sham treatments, but not after “no treatment.” Anthropologist Daniel Moerman, in an accompanying editorial, wrote, “the authors conclude that the patient reports were ‘unreliable,’ since they reported improvement when there was none”—precisely as any rational clinician or biomedical scientist would have concluded.

In Part 1 of this blog we saw that Moerman took issue with that conclusion. He argued, with just a bit of hedging, that the subjects’ perceptions of improvement were more important than objective measures of their lung function. I wondered how the NEJM editors had chosen someone whose bibliography predicted such an anti-medical opinion. I doubted that Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen, an expert in the pathophysiology of asthma, had ever heard of Moerman. I suggested, in a way that probably appeared facetious, that Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the asthma report, might have recommended him. (more…)

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine

Background

This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word ”doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.

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Update on Josephine Briggs and the NCCAM

Dr. Gorski is in the throes of grant-writing, so I’m filling in for him today by following up on a topic introduced a few months ago. It involves a key medical player in the U.S. government: Dr. Josephine Briggs, Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Background

Steve Novella and I first encountered Dr. Briggs at the 2nd Yale Research Symposium on Complementary and Integrative Medicine in March, 2010. I reported here that she seemed well-meaning and pro-science but that she also seemed naive to the political realities of her office and to much of the content of “CAM” (as illustrated by her recommending the NCCAM website, which is full of misinformation; previously I’d noticed her unfortunate innocence of “acupuncture anesthesia,” which is to be expected of most academics but not of the CAM Explicator-in-Chief).

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The ultimate in “integrative medicine,” continued

It’s been a recurring theme on this blog to discuss and dissect the infiltration of quackademic medicine into our medical schools. Whether it be called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM), its infiltration into various academic medical centers has been one of the more alarming developments I’ve noted over the last several years. The reason is that “integrative” medicine is all too often in reality nothing more than “integrating” pseudoscience with science, quackery with medicine. The most popular modalities that medical schools and academic medicine centers can’t seem to resist are acupuncture and various forms of “energy” healing, such as reiki and therapeutic touch. Unfortunately, when you “integrate” something like reiki or therapeutic touch (TT), which basically assert that there is mystical, magical energy source (called the “universal source” by reiki practitioners, for example) that practitioners can tap into and channel into patients for healing effect, you are in essence integrating a prescientific understanding of the world with science, religious faith healing (which, let’s face it, is all that reiki is), and magic with reality.

Why would medical institutions ostensibly based on science do that?

I don’t know, but I know it’s happening. There are many forces that conspire to insert sectarian versions of medicine into bastions of scientific medicine. These include cultural relativism leading to a reluctance to call quackery quackery; financial forces such as the Bravewell Collaborative, which funds a number of IM programs at academic centers; the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM); and a variety of other factors. It’s been a depressing slide, and periodically I wonder just how much more pseudoscience can be “integrated” into medical schools and academic medical centers or how much further medical schools can go in pandering to nonsense. I’m not wondering anymore, at least for now, not after learning about a cooperative agreement between Georgetown University and the National University of Health Sciences:
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Smallpox and Pseudomedicine

A good case of smallpox may rid the system of more scrofulous, tubercular, syphilitic and other poisons than could otherwise be eliminated in a lifetime. Therefore, smallpox is certainly to be preferred to vaccination. The one means elimination of chronic disease, the other the making of it.

Naturopaths do not believe in artificial immunization . . .

—Harry Riley Spitler, Basic Naturopathy: a textbook (American Naturopathic Association, Inc., 1948). Quoted here.

Here’s what a good case of smallpox will do for you:

If you’re lucky enough to beat the reaper (20-60%; 80% or higher in infants) or blindness (up to 30%), those blisters will leave you scarred for life. Oh, and the next time a good smallpox epidemic comes around, your children born since the last one will catch it and contribute their fair share to the death rate. But not you because you’ll be immune, so you’ll have the “preferred” experience of watching your children die well before you do.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Epidemiology, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Public Health, Vaccines

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Fashionably toxic

It’s the toxins.

Toujours les toxines.

How many times have I read or heard from believers in “alternative” medicine that some disease or other is caused by “toxins”? I honestly can’t remember, but in alt-world, no matter what the disease or condition under discussion is, there’s a good chance that sooner or later it will be linked to “toxins.” It doesn’t matter if it’s cancer, autism, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, or that general malaise that comes over people who, as British comedians Mitchell and Webb put it, have more money than sense; somehow, some way, someone will invoke “toxins.”

I was reminded of this obsession among believers in unscientific medicine last Friday when I came across an article by Guy Trebay in the New York Times entitled The Age of Purification. The article appeared, appropriately enough, in the Fashion section and was festooned with photos of cupping, surely one of the silliest of the many “detoxification” modalities that alternative medicine practitioners use to claim to draw the “toxins” out of their clients through the application of, well, cups or various other containers in which the air had been heated in order to generate negative pressure when sealed to the skin and presumably thus bring them to a greater level of purification and health. Indeed, the only “detoxification” rituals sillier than cupping that I can think of off the top of my head are detoxifying footpads and “detox foot baths.”

Oh, wait. Scratch that. I forgot about ear candling, which must surely be the undisputed silliest “detox” treatment of all time—until someone thinks of an even sillier one. Or not. There are just so many silly “detox” procedures that it’s hard to select a “winner.”

Be that as it may, Trebay mixes sarcasm with exposition throughout his article in a rather amusing way that’s worth quoting:

My friend, like everyone else around, seemed to believe that mysterious, amorphous sludge had lodged in the anatomical crannies of half the local adult population. Unseen toxins were lurking, like Communists during the Red Scare.

The “toxins” required elimination, somehow, and thus at lunches, at cocktails, at dinner parties, normal conversations turned abruptly from the day’s news to progress reports on juice fasts, energy alignments, radical purging. From painful sessions with traditional healers to toxin-leaching treatments designed, it might seem, to clean out not just body but wallet, a surprising number of New Yorkers (not all of them well-to-do neurotics) are caught up in a new New Age, the Age of Purification.

How had it happened, I wondered, that so many otherwise sensible, urban people found themselves in the grip of a dreadful feeling that systems are down? “I just bought five pounds of carrots, ginger and kale and put it all in my Breville juicer and pounded that all day,” said a corporate adviser of my acquaintance, far from a credulous woo-woo type.

Of course, as we have noted so many times before, hard-nosed skepticism in one area of one’s life does not necessarily translate to other areas. Many are the people who would never ever fall prey to scams in business, for example, but happily fork over money for scams such as “detox footpads”—or fall for anti-vaccine quackery, like J.B. Handley. Whatever the case, why this fascination with “detoxification” in alternative medicine? Why do so many of its treatments, be they dietary, chelation therapy, purges, colon cleanses, or whatever, claim to eliminate “toxins”? Why is it that, if you Google “alternative medicine” and “detoxification,” you find so many references, some of which claim external toxins need to be eliminated, some of which claim that internal toxins need to be purged, and still more of which blame various “parasites” for all manner of health distress? In this post, I’ll try to explain, but first a little history—self-history that is.
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Parasites

I saw a patient recently for parasites.

I get a sinking feeling when I see that diagnosis on the schedule, as it rarely means a real parasite.  The great Pacific NW is mostly parasite free, so either it is a traveler or someone with delusions of parasitism.

The latter comes in two forms: the classic form and Morgellons. Neither are likely to lead to a meaningful patient-doctor interaction, since it usually means conflict between my assessment of the problem and the patients assessment of the problem.  There is rarely a middle ground upon which to meet. The most memorable case of delusions of parasitism I have seen was a patient who  I saw in clinic who, while we talked, ate a raw garlic clove about every minute.

“Why the garlic?” I asked.

“To keep the parasites at bay,” he told me.

I asked him to describe the parasite.  He told me they floated in the air, fell on his skin, and then burrowed in.  Then he later plucked them out of his nose.

At this point he took out a large bottle that rattled as he shook it.

“I keep them in here,” he said as he screwed off the lid and dumped about 3 cups with of dried boogers on the exam table.

To my credit I neither screamed nor vomited, although for a year I could not eat garlic.  It was during this time I was attacked by a vampire, and joined the ranks of the undead. (more…)

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Without Borders

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch CAM and woo Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

The White Man’s burden, a bit of racism from the 19th century:

The term “the white man’s burden” has been interpreted as racist, or taken as a metaphor for a condescending view of non-Western national culture and economic traditions, identified as a sense of European ascendancy which has been called “cultural imperialism.” An alternative interpretation is the philanthropic view, common in Kipling’s formative years, that the rich have a moral duty and obligation to help “the poor” “better” themselves whether the poor want the help or not. The term “the white man’s burden” has been interpreted as racist, or taken as a metaphor for a condescending view of non-Western national culture and economic traditions, identified as a sense of European ascendancy which has been called “cultural imperialism.” An alternative interpretation is the philanthropic view, common in Kipling’s formative years, that the rich have a moral duty and obligation to help “the poor” “better” themselves whether the poor want the help or not.

I will let the commentators debate the meaning of the poem. There are places in the world so devastated by poverty, disease and political corruption that it may be beyond the capacity of the local populations to overcome. They need outside help. Certainly, the impulse to help those less fortunate than yourselves is a noble tradition. Haiti, Central America and Uganda are parts of the world that need assistance in overcoming an incredible number of problems to reach even a basic level of material support for its population.
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Naturopathy and science

Naturopathy has been a recurrent topic on this blog. The reasons should be obvious. Although homeopathy is the one woo to rule them all in the U.K. and much of Europe, here in the U.S. homeopathy is not nearly as big a deal. Arguably, some flavor of naturopathy is the second most prevalent “alternative medical system” here, after chiropractic of course, and perhaps duking it out with traditional Chinese medicine, although naturopathy does embrace TCM as part of the armamentarium of dubious medical systems that it uses. In any case, some sixteen states and five Canadian provinces license naturopaths in some form, and in some states naturopaths are fighting for–and in some cases winning–the power to prescribe certain real pharmaceutical medications and order real medical tests. For instance, in California, naturopaths can order laboratory tests and X-rays, which reminds me of a conversation I had with a mammographer from California at TAM last summer. He told me a tale of the dilemma he had when naturopaths and other “alt-med” practitioners ordered tests at his facilities. Specifically, the dilemma came about because he doubted that the naturopath knew what to do with the results. Meanwhile, in Oregon, naturopaths can prescribe certain types of pharmaceutical drugs (as opposed to the usual supplements, herbs, or homeopathic remedies they normally prescribe). Meanwhile, moves are under way to expand the prescribing privileges of naturopaths in Canada, as Ontario (which is, remember, just across the Detroit River, less than two and a half miles as the crow flies from my cancer center—a truly frightening thought to me).

Unfortunately, naturopathy is a hodge-podge of mostly unscientific treatment modalities based on vitalism and other prescientific notions of disease. As a result, typical naturopaths are more than happy in essence to “pick one from column A and one from column B” when it comes to pseudoscience, 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. Despite their affinity for non-science-based medical systems, naturopaths crave the imprimatur of science. As a result, they desperately try to represent what they do as being science-based, and they’ve even set up research institutes, much like the departments, divisions, and institutes devoted to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) that have cropped up on the campuses of legitimate medical schools and academic medical centers like so many weeds poking through the cracks in the edifice of science-based medicine. Naturopaths also really, really don’t like it when they encounter criticism that their “discipline” is not science-based. Indeed, the president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, Carl Hangee-Bauer, ND, LAc (he’s an acupuncturist, too!), wrote a revealing post on the official AANP blog entitled Science and Naturopathic Medicine.

Science. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part II: Is it a Good Idea to test Highly Implausible Health Claims?

Review

This is the second post in a series* prompted by an essay by statistician Stephen Simon, who argued that Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) is not lacking in the ways that we at Science-Based Medicine have argued. David Gorski responded here, and Prof. Simon responded to Dr. Gorski here. Between that response and the comments following Dr. Gorski’s post it became clear to me that a new round of discussion would be worth the effort.

Part I of this series provided ample evidence for EBM’s “scientific blind spot”: the EBM Levels of Evidence scheme and EBM’s most conspicuous exponents consistently fail to consider all of the evidence relevant to efficacy claims, choosing instead to rely almost exclusively on randomized, controlled trials (RCTs). The several quoted Cochrane abstracts, regarding homeopathy and Laetrile, suggest that in the EBM lexicon, “evidence” and “RCTs” are almost synonymous. Yet basic science or preliminary clinical studies provide evidence sufficient to refute some health claims (e.g., homeopathy and Laetrile), particularly those emanating from the social movement known by the euphemism “CAM.”

It’s remarkable to consider just how unremarkable that last sentence ought to be. EBM’s founders understood the proper role of the rigorous clinical trial: to be the final arbiter of any claim that had already demonstrated promise by all other criteria—basic science, animal studies, legitimate case series, small controlled trials, “expert opinion,” whatever (but not inexpert opinion). EBM’s founders knew that such pieces of evidence, promising though they may be, are insufficient because they “routinely lead to false positive conclusions about efficacy.” They must have assumed, even if they felt no need to articulate it, that claims lacking such promise were not part of the discussion. Nevertheless, the obvious point was somehow lost in the subsequent formalization of EBM methods, and seems to have been entirely forgotten just when it ought to have resurfaced: during the conception of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine’s Introduction to Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine.

Thus, in 2000, the American Heart Journal (AHJ) could publish an unchallenged editorial arguing that Na2EDTA chelation “therapy” could not be ruled out as efficacious for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease because it hadn’t yet been subjected to any large RCTs—never mind that there had been several small ones, and abundant additional evidence from basic science, case studies, and legal documents, all demonstrating that the treatment is both useless and dangerous. The well-powered RCT had somehow been transformed, for practical purposes, from the final arbiter of efficacy to the only arbiter. If preliminary evidence was no longer to have practical consequences, why bother with it at all? This was surely an example of what Prof. Simon calls “Poorly Implemented Evidence Based Medicine,” but one that was also implemented by the very EBM experts who ought to have recognized the fallacy.

There will be more evidence for these assertions as we proceed, but the main thrust of Part II is to begin to respond to this statement from Prof. Simon: “There is some societal value in testing therapies that are in wide use, even though there is no scientifically valid reason to believe that those therapies work.”

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