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Changing behavior is difficult. It is also an increasing priority for health care. We have entered a period of history when lifestyle choices have a dominant impact on health and longevity. People are no longer dying young of incurable infectious diseases in significant numbers. Rather they are surviving long enough to die from their bad habits.

Further, health behaviors are having a huge impact on the overall cost of health care. So the motivation is greater than ever to impact public health by influencing behavior. Yet, we are not very good at doing this.

It’s not that we’re not trying – it’s simply that having a large influence on people’s day-to-day behavior is remarkably difficult. There is ongoing research looking at how to effectively change behavior at the individual and public level, but it is complex, often conflicting, and new techniques at best yield only marginal gains.

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Posted in: Public Health

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The “no compassion” gambit

As usual, I was impressed with Mark Crislip’s post on Friday in which he discussed the boundaries between science-based medicine and what we sometimes refer to as woo or what Mark often refers to as sCAM. It got me to thinking a bit, which is always a dangerous thing, particularly when such thinking leads to my writing something for my not-so-super-secret other blog (NSSSOB). Of course, this is not my NSSSOB, but that doesn’t make it that much less dangerous. Be that as it may, I started thinking about a gambit I started noticing a few years ago being directed at me by the targets of my logorrheic deconstructions. Actually, I noticed it from the very beginning, when I first started blogging about SBM versus quackery way back in 2004 and even before, back when I was one of a doughty band of pro-science types who waded into the Wild West of online forums known as Usenet, in particular the misc.health.alternative newsgroup.

I happen to be in Washington, DC as I write this. In fact, as I write this I’m here to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the better to soak in all that cancer science goodness and (hopefully) be pumped up to go back and keep trying to do good science and, hopefully, manage to get my lab funded. Of course, the latter task is a really daunting these days, a truly depressing thing to contemplate, given that the current payline for the National Cancer Institute is around the 7th percentile, which makes me worry about how much longer my lab will be open. My self pity aside, Mark got me to thinking about the characteristics of purveyors of non-science-based medicine (i.e., quackery and quackademic medicine) compared to SBM. More precisely, I started thinking about a difference that what Mark calls sCAMmers try to pin on those of us who try to defend SBM against the forces of pseudoscience. To introduce this concept, I think it’s worth going back a few years to a comment I got a long, long time ago on a blog far, far away (i.e., my NSSSOB):

When it comes to autism, you seem to have lost something that I think every physician is well-served to have in abundance: compassion.

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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The final nail in the coffin for the antivaccine rallying cry “Too many too soon”?

There are some weeks when I know what my topic will be—what it must be. These are weeks in which the universe gives the very appearance of handing to me my topic for the week on the proverbial silver platter with a giant hand descending from the clouds, pointing at it, and saying, “Blog about this, you idiot!” Usually, it’s because a study is released or something happens or a quack writes something that cries out for rebuttal. Whatever it is, it’s big and it’s unavoidable (for me, at least).

This is one of those weeks.

The reason it’s one of those weeks is because just last Friday, as I was driving to work, I heard a news story on NPR about a study that had just been released in the Journal of Pediatrics. The story, as it was reported, noted that the study being discussed looked specifically at a certain antivaccine trope and found for yet the umpteenth time that vaccines are not correlated with an increased risk of autism. Normally the news that a study had once again failed to find a link between vaccines and autism would be as surprising as a study finding that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, or finding that water boils at 100° C at sea level. At this point, the evidence is so utterly overwhelming that there is not a whiff of a hint of a whisper of a correlation between vaccines and autism that it has become irritating that antivaccine activists keep pressuring scientists to do the same study over and over again, coming up with the same results over and over again, and then seeing antivaccinationists fail to believe those same results over and over again. Apparently, antivaccine activists think that if the same sorts of studies are done enough times, there will be a positive result implicating vaccines as a risk factor for or contributing cause to autism. By sheer random chance alone, this might happen someday, given the definition of statistical significance, but so far there has not been a single large, well-designed epidemiological study by reputable researchers that has found a link.
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health, Vaccines

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Once more into the screening breach: The New York Times did not kill your patient

One of the more depressing things about getting much more interested in the debate over how we should screen for common cancers, particularly breast and prostate cancer, is my increasing realization of just how little physicians themselves understand about the complexities involved in weighing the value of such tests. It’s become increasingly apparent to me that most physicians believe that early detection is always good and that it always saves lives, having little or no conception of lead time or length bias. Sadly, just last week, I saw another example of just this phenomenon in the form of an article written by Dr. George Lombardi entitled My Patient, Killed By The New York Times. The depth of Dr. Lombardi’s misunderstanding of screening tests permeates the entire article, which begins with his recounting a story about a patient of his, whose death he blames on The New York Times. After describing the funeral of this 73-year-old man who died of prostate cancer, Dr. Lombardi then makes an accusation:

This one filled me with a special discomfort as I knew a secret: He didn’t have to die. I knew it and he had known it. Had he told?

About 5 years ago he had just retired and had a lot more time on his hands. He was a careful man, lived alone, considered himself well informed. He got into the habit of clipping articles on medical issues and either mailing them to me or bringing them in. They came from a variety of sources and were on a variety of topics. He wasn’t trying to show me up. He was genuinely curious. I kidded him that maybe he’d like to go to medical school in his retirement. ‘No’ he laughed, ‘I just like to be in the know.’

When he came in for his physical in 2008 he told me he’d agree to the DRE but not the PSA (his medical sophistication extended to the use of acronyms: DRE stands for digital rectal exam where I feel the prostate with my gloved finger for any abnormality and PSA for prostatic [sic] specific antigen which is a blood protein unique to the prostate and often elevated in prostate cancer). He had read that the use of PSA as a screening test was controversial. This was the year that the United States Preventive Services Task Force, a government panel that issues screening guidelines, recommended against routine PSA screens for older men. It was often a false positive (the PSA was elevated but there was no cancer), led to unnecessary biopsies, and besides most prostate cancers at his age were indolent and didn’t need to be treated. I countered that prostate cancer was the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men and that it was better to know than not to know. This way it would be our decision. The patient with his doctor deciding what was best. But no, he wanted to stick to his guns and since the DRE was normal no PSA blood test was sent.

After describing a conversation with the man’s daughter, who said, “My father was killed by The New York Times,” Dr. Lombardi then goes on to anecdotal evidence and a cherry-picked publication to support his view, quoting an oncologist who says he’s “seeing more men presenting with advanced prostate cancer” and then referring to a single paper in the current Annals of Internal Medicine about PSA screening. Before I look at the article and a recently published paper on screening mammography that made the news, I can’t help but point out that I (mostly) agree with Dr. Lombardi when he says:

Public health doctors, policy experts and journalists tend to look at the population as a whole. It is a better story if it is one story. It makes a better headline. Their statistics are people I sit across from everyday trying to figure out what the future holds. We each have our job to do.

The problem is, of course, that Dr. Lombardi takes that observation and draws the wrong conclusion, namely that his patient died because of lack of screening. He attacks a straw man, sidestepping the true argument, namely that evidence shows that PSA screening probably causes more harm than good for men at average risk of prostate cancer. Unfortunately, Dr. Lombardi obviously does not understand some very basic concepts behind cancer screening, nor does he apparently recognize that doctors who deal with the population-level data that we have regarding screening tests and try to apply them to individual patients are actually looking in a very systematic way about what the benefits of screening are to the individual patient. More on that later. In the meantime, although I wouldn’t go quite as far as Dr. John Schumann did in criticizing Dr. Lombardi, I do view his lament as a jumping off point to look at some recent data on screening for the two most common cancers, breast and prostate.

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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Smoking: The Good News and the Bad News

The principles we espouse on Science-Based Medicine are vitally important, but some of the subjects we address are not so important in the big scheme of things. Homeopathy and electrodermal diagnostic devices don’t actually harm very many people. For today’s post, I’m going to follow the Willie Sutton rule and go where the money is, so to speak.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death. No prospective double blind randomized controlled studies have been done, or ever could be done; but a mountain of evidence converging from many avenues has established the health dangers of smoking beyond any doubt. Hill’s criteria of causation have been amply fulfilled.  Smoking causes 90% of all deaths from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, several types of cancer, infertility, stillbirth, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), osteoporosis, and premature skin aging (wrinkles). The dangers of second-hand smoke have been amply documented, and where smoke-free laws have been passed there has been a drop in the incidence of heart attacks and of emergency room visits for children with asthma.

Two new studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine reinforce what we already knew and offer both good news and bad news.  (more…)

Posted in: Public Health

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An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on The Dr. Oz Show

An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on <em>The Dr. Oz Show</em>
OzPT

 

Dear Penn & Teller,

I really don’t want to say this, but I feel obligated to. I’m afraid you screwed up. Big time. (Of course, if this weren’t a generally family-friendly blog, where we rarely go beyond PG-13 language, I’d use a term more like one that Penn would use to describe a massive fail, which, as you might guess, also starts with the letter “f”; I think he’d appreciate that.)

I’m referring, of course, to your appearance on The Dr. Oz Show one week ago (video: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Before I begin the criticism, let me just take care of the obligatory but honest statement that I am a fan. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Indeed, I remember seeing you guys perform in Chicago back in the late 1990s when I was doing my fellowship at the University of Chicago. I’ve also seen you in Las Vegas a couple of times, most recently a couple of years ago (see pictures below) at TAM. The two of you have become skeptical icons, through your association with James Randi and over the last several years through your Showtime series Bullshit!, which is advertised with the tagline, “Sacred cows get slaughtered here.” And so they did for the eight seasons Bullshit! was on TV. When you guys were on, it was a thing of beauty to behold, both from the standpoint of entertainment and skepticism.
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Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Homeopathy, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Legislative Alchemy: Naturopathy 2013

A fresh season of state legislative sessions is upon us and with it comes the ubiquitous attempts by purveyors of so called “complementary and alternative medicine” (or “CAM”) to join the health care provider fraternity. Via the magic of legislative alchemy, state legislatures transform pseudoscientific diagnoses (e.g., “chronic yeast overgrowth”) and treatments (e.g., homeopathy) into faux, but legal, health care. Once the imprimatur of legitimacy is bestowed by the state in the form of a health care practice act tailored to their special brand of quackery, these newly licensed health care providers are free to foist their practices onto an unsuspecting public and charge them for the privilege. All of this is done under the false assumption that such legislation is necessary to protect the public health, safety and welfare.

We might well want to consider how far this whole thing is going. Will practitioners of CAM split into an ever-expanding number of CAM provider guilds, all with their own practice acts? First, chiropractors were the only CAM practitioners who managed to get themselves licensed in all 50 states. Then along came acupuncturists, who are now licensed to practice in over 40 states. A few states license homeopaths. Some states licensed naturopaths early on. Now the naturopaths, licensed in 16 states, are in a full court press to catch up and legitimize themselves with licenses to practice “naturopathic medicine.”

Why? Because, according to Lorilee Schoenback, ND, a Vermont practitioner and American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) Board member:

If the law [the Affordable Care Act, or ACA] is implemented as intended NDs in 16 states will immediately be covered by insurance.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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One Flu Into the Cuckoo’s Nest*

“I don’t seem able to get it straight in my mind….”
― Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Influenza is going gangbusters at the moment. I like going to Google Flu trends as well as the CDC flu site to see what flu is doing. Using Google searches as a surrogate for infections is an interesting technique that public health officials have tried with less success in other illnesses but is not without utility. Behaviors of populations can presage a problem, my favorite example is the first hint of the 1993 massive Cryptosporidia diarrhea outbreak in Milwaukee was a sudden shortage of Kaopectate and Peptobismol. It appears there are more patients with flu like symptoms this year than  at the height of the H1N1 epidemic of 2009. We have lots of flu like illness, and per the CDC there are buckets of confirmed influenzaflu, but so far the season, while probably having more cases than 2009, the outbreak is clinically not the same.

Compare and contrast, the two words that defined undergraduate liberal arts essay assignments. Get out your blue books and compare and contrast influenza outbreaks from 2009 and 2013. You have one hour. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Nonsense about the Health Effects of Electromagnetic Radiation

Helke Ferrie has written an article for The CCPA Monitor, a monthly journal published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, entitled “Dirty electricity, EMF radiation can be removed or reduced.” It is in the June 2012 issue, and is not available online. She calls herself a science writer, but this is not the writing of a person who understands science. There is hardly a word of truth in it. It’s a classic example of pseudoscientific propaganda, an appalling farrago of false statements and fallacious arguments. The nonsense starts with the very first sentence:

The symptoms of electropollution-induced sickness involve all organs with many debilitating symptoms, from skin rashes to cancer; they are part of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) spectrum.

The diagnoses of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “multiple chemical sensitivity” are not recognized by the medical and scientific communities. Up to 5% of the population has come to attribute a large variety of nonspecific symptoms to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields from cell phones and other common electrical devices or to the chemicals in their environment. Their complaints have been thoroughly evaluated. Numerous studies and systematic reviews have been done; they are summarized in a Wikipedia article.  Just to give one example, a systematic review published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2006 analyzed 31 double blind studies comparing real radiation to sham radiation. Patients couldn’t tell the difference. 24 of the studies found no effect, 7 reported “some” supporting evidence (2 of which could not be replicated on subsequent trials by the same researchers), 3 were false positives attributed to statistical artefacts, and the final 2 had mutually incompatible results. They concluded:

The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF.

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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media

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Anti-psychiatry and anti-vaccine activists shamelessly taking advantage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings

Quacks detest science-based medicine (SBM) in general, but there are certain specialties that they detest more than others. For instance, you won’t find too many quacks attacking trauma surgery because even they know that when a person’s body has been on the losing end of a confrontation with a bullet or a car, no amount of laying on of hands, homeopathic nostrums, “energy healing,” or herbal remedies are going to stop the hemorrhage, mend broken bones, or repair holes in various internal organs. That’s why even homeopaths will concede that “allopathic medicine” is good for emergencies. It’s also why sketches like this one resonate:

However, from there the distrust of promoters of unscientific and pseudoscientific medical systems and treatment modalities for SBM appears to increase in direct proportion to the urgency and need for direct physical repair of damaged organs, with the possible exception of cancer, for which the standard physical treatment (surgery) is attacked nearly as much as chemotherapy.

Be that as it may, arguably the specialty most attacked by quacks is psychiatry. Many are the reasons, some legitimate, many not. For example, the Church of Scientology in particular despises psychiatry, even going so far as to maintain through its anti-psychiatry front group the Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) a risibly nonsensical “museum” in Hollywood dedicated to psychiatry that they charmingly call Psychiatry: An Industry of Death. It’s so ridiculously, painfully over-the-top, a veritable self-parody of anti-psychiatry hyperbole, that it inadvertently undermines the very attacks on psychiatry frequently leveled by Scientologists and quacks that it’s meant to reinforce. Indeed, not having visited its website for several years, I notice that the CCHR has totally revamped it, now including a virtual 3D tour of the museum, along with video clips from its many “exhibits” available online. I’ll have to file that away for later blog fodder, because the misinformation, cherry picking, and pseudoscience flow freely, as one would expect from a Scientology propaganda project. In the meantime, suffice to say that it’s not just the Church of Scientology that despises psychiatry. It’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and his disciples merely represent the most ridiculously over-the-top and vociferous anti-psychiatry group that I’m currently aware of.

Let’s face it, psychiatry hasn’t always had the best history. It’s a very hard to study human behavior and disorders of human behavior in a rigorous fashion, but to my mind that didn’t excuse the the widespread acceptance for many decades of the ideas of Sigmund Freud, which were little removed from pseudoscience in many respects. Also, psychiatry has not always had the best history, particularly in the early part of this century. Too often, psychiatry has been used as a tool of control rather than a means of helping people who are suffering. Perhaps the worst example is the misuse of psychiatry by various totalitarian regimes, be it the Nazis using it as a primary tool of its T4 euthanasia program or the Soviet Union declaring enemies of the state to be mentally ill and shipping them off to Gulags.

Although there is a ways to go, however, psychiatry in 2012 is much better than psychiatry, say, 50 or 75 years ago. It wasn’t so long ago that, popularized by Walter Freeman, thousands of “ice pick lobotomies” were performed for all manner of indications, few of which had what we would consider to be compelling scientific support to back them up. Over the last half-century, better psychiatric drugs to treat different conditions have been developed, leading to their widespread use for a number of indications.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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