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Fever Phobia

Fever is a mighty engine which Nature brings into the world for conquest of her enemies.”

— Thomas Sydenham

 

The occasional abnormal elevation in body temperature associated with infection is as much a part of the human condition as abstract thought or the desire to lose weight without exercise or cutting calories. Commonly known as fever, this powerful yet misunderstood physiologic response has been documented in a variety of animal species including fish, reptiles and of course humans. We have all had fever at least once in our lives, and probably several times. And many of us have undoubtedly spent a few anxious nights cradling febrile little ones, afraid more of the repercussions of the fever itself than the potential sequelae of the underlying cause.

Along those lines, fever is one of the most common reasons for parents to seek medical care for their children, with roughly a third of pediatric acute care visits related to it, as well as a frequent impetus for late night nursing calls to sleepy hospitalists. Actually only about half of after-hours calls are about fever but who’s counting. Unfortunately most medical professionals, including many pediatricians, have a poor understanding of the pathophysiology of fever, and their panicked approach to its management in many children involves unnecessary laboratory tests, imaging studies, and doses of broad spectrum antibiotics. It also adds to parental anxiety and helps to establish a vicious cycle as patients of over worried caregivers tend to undergo more aggressive evaluation and treatment.

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Disingenuous: Deconstruction of a naturopathic white paper

Science is the Concept by which
we measure our reality
I don’t believe in magic
I don’t believe in I-ching…
I just believe in science…and that reality.

John Lennon. Sort of.

As regular readers of the blog are aware, I am science/reality based.  I think the physical and basic sciences provide an excellent understanding of reality at the level of human experience.  Physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, evolution etc. provide a reliable and reproducible framework within which to understand health and disease.  My pesky science may not know everything about reality, but day to day it works well.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet (1.5.166-7).”  

Perhaps, but all the medical advances in my lifetime have been not yielded new science, just (amazing) variations and extensions of known processes.  I sometimes think the blog should have been called reality based medicine, but science is the tool by which we understand reality, and while the tool is constant, our understanding of reality is prone to changing.  An understanding of the rules of the universe combined with an awareness of the innumerable ways whereby we can fool ourselves into believing that those rules do not apply to us is part of what makes a science and reality based doctor.

We are often told of the need to keep an open mind, but I like to keep it open to reality.  Not that I do not like fantasy and magic, it is a common category for my reading.  I just finished Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, and while I love the world he has created, I would not want to apply the rules of that imaginary world to my patients.   Well, one exception.  As Logen Ninefingers  would say, “You have to realistic about these things.” Fictional worlds should be limited to the practice of art, not the practice of medicine.
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Posted in: Humor, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Energy Medicine – Noise-Based Pseudoscience

So-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is largely philosophy-based medicine rather than science based. There are a few core concepts that are endlessly recycled in various forms, but it is mythology and culture, not grounded in the rigorous methods of science that allow us to tell the difference between our satisfying fantasies and hard reality. Sometimes proponents of such philosophies try to cloak their beliefs in the appearance of science, resulting in what we simply call pseudoscience.

Harriet Hall coined an excellent term to refer to such pseudoscience -” Tooth Fairy science.” In her metaphor, pseudoscientists sometimes act like scientists by describing the details and statistics of their claimed phenomenon (such as examining all the details of the Tooth Fairy phenomenon) without ever testing the reality of the phenomenon itself. The fundamental concept at the core of their belief is never challenged, or only superficially so, and they proceed prematurely from their faulty premise.

Another term that I find extremely apt is “Cargo Cult science,” a term coined by Richard Feynman. This is a reference to the cargo cults of New Guinea – the pre-industrial tribes were observed building straw mock-ups of control towers, planes, and runways in hopes that the planes they observed flying over head would deliver their cargo to them. In other words – the cargo cults mimicked the superficial appearance of an aviation infrastructure but had none of the real essence or function (because of lack of understanding). This is a perfect analogy to much of what passes for science within the world of CAM.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Science and Medicine

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Fun With Statistics

Statistics is the essential foundation for science-based medicine.  Unfortunately, it’s a confusing subject that invites errors and misunderstandings.  We non-statisticians could all benefit from learning more about statistics as well as trying to get a better understanding of just how much we don’t know. Most of us are not going to read a statistics textbook, but the book Dicing with Death: Chance, Risk, and Health by Stephen Senn is an excellent place to start or continue our education. Statistics can be misused to lie with numbers, but when used properly it is the indispensable discipline that allows scientists:

 …to translate information into knowledge. It tells us how to evaluate evidence, how to design experiments, how to turn data into decisions, how much credence should be given to whom to what and why, how to reckon chances and when to take them.

Senn covers the whole field of statistics, including Bayesian vs. frequentist approaches, significance tests, life tables, survival analysis, the problematic but still useful meta-analysis, prior probability, likelihood, coefficients of correlation, the generalizability of results, multivariate analysis, ethics, equipoise, and a multitude of other useful topics. He includes biographical notes about the often rather curious statisticians who developed the discipline. And while he includes some mathematics out of necessity, he helpfully stars the more technical sections and chapters so they can be skipped by readers who find mathematics painful. The book is full of examples from real-life medical applications, and it is funny enough to hold the reader’s interest. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Anecdotes: Cheaper by the Dozen

A loan officer sets up a meeting with an aspiring entrepreneur to inform him that his application has been denied. “Mr Smith, we have reviewed your application and found a fatal flaw in your business plan. You say that you will be selling your donuts for 60 cents apiece. “Yes” says Mr. Smith, “that is significantly less than any other baker in town. This will give my business a significant competitive advantage!” The loan officer replies, “According to your budget, at peak efficiency the cost of supplies to make each donut is 75 cents, you will lose 15 cents on every donut you sell. A look of relief comes over Mr. Smith’s face as he realizes the loan officer’s misunderstanding. He leans in closer, and whispers to the loan officer “But don’t you see, I’ll make it up in volume.”

If you find this narrative at all amusing, it is likely because Mr. Smith is oblivious to what seems like an obvious flaw in his logic.

A similar error in logic is made by those who rely on anecdote and other intrinsically biased information to understand the natural world. If one anecdote is biased, a collection of 12 or 1000 anecdotes multiplies the bias, and will likely reinforces an errant conclusion. When it comes to bias, you can’t make it up in volume. Volume makes it worse!

Unfortunately human beings are intrinsically vulnerable to bias. In most day to day decisions, like choosing which brand of toothpaste to buy, or which route to drive to work, these biases are of little importance. In making critical decisions, like assessing the effectiveness of a new treatment for cancer, these biases may make the difference between life and death. The scientific method is defined by a system of practices that aim to minimize bias from the assessment of a problem.

Bias, in general, is tendency that prevents unpredjudiced consideration of a question (paraphrased from dictionary.com). Researchers describe sources of bias as systematic errors. A few words about random and systematic errors will make this description clearer.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Blonde Blood

Two scientists walk into a bar
The first one says “I’ll have some H2O.”
The second one says, “I’ll have some H2O too.”
Then he dies.

I have come to believe in my own version of The Secret.

The Secret describes the law of attraction as a natural law that determines the complete order of the universe and of our personal lives through the process of “like attracts like. The author claims that as we think and feel, a corresponding frequency is sent out into the universe that attracts back to us events and circumstances on that same frequency.

Obviously not true as I have yet to win Powerball. But a variant of the Secret is kind of creepy. As soon as I learn about a new concept, in medicine or life, I start to see it. All the time. Perhaps my learning a new concept causes it to spring forth like Athena. I would have said instantiate, but I got all sorts of grief when I used that word last time. For example, shortly after reading a review of infections in patients with Osler-Weber-Rendu,  I saw a case. Creepy. As I drive from hospital to hospital I listen to Audible books and it is equally creepy how often I see a word in my visual field that is identical to the word I am listening to. (more…)

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CAM Docket: Functional Endocrinology

 

One of the signature abilities of CAM practitioners is the creation of new diagnostic methods and treatments which convincingly demonstrate they have only a superficial understanding of human physiology. Here at SBM, posts have addressed such sterling examples of this phenomenon as cranial sacral therapy, applied kinesiology and chiropractic neurology. Now we have a new one on the horizon: functional endocrinology.

I don’t know who thought up this idea, but a primary promoter appears to be a Colorado chiropractor, Brandon Credeur, a 2002 graduate of Parker Chiropractic College in Texas. In additional to operating the Functional Endocrinology Center of Colorado, in Denver (where he practices with his wife, Heather Credeur, D.C.), he sold (and may still be selling) practice-building courses on functional endocrinology to other chiropractors.

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“Moneyball,” the 2012 election, and science- and evidence-based medicine

Regular readers of my other blog probably know that I’m into more than just science, skepticism, and promoting science-based medicine (SBM). I’m also into science fiction, computers, and baseball, not to mention politics (at least more than average). That’s why our recent election, coming as it did hot on the heels of the World Series in which my beloved Detroit Tigers utterly choked got me to thinking. Actually, it was more than just that. It was also an article that appeared a couple of weeks before the election in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled Moneyball and Medicine, by Christopher J. Phillips, PhD, Jeremy A. Greene, MD, PhD, and Scott H. Podolsky, MD. In it, they compare what they call “evidence-based” baseball to “evidence-based medicine,” something that is not as far-fetched as one might think.

“Moneyball,” as baseball fans know, refers to a book by Michael Lewis entitled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Published in 2003, Moneyball is the story of the Oakland Athletics and their manager Billy Beane and how the A’s managed to field a competitive team even though the organization was—shall we say?—”revenue challenged” compared to big market teams like the New York Yankees. The central premise of the book was that that the collective wisdom of baseball leaders, such as managers, coaches, scouts, owners, and general managers, was flawed and too subjective. Using rigorous statistical analysis, the A’s front office determined various metrics that were better predictors of offensive success than previously used indicators. For example, conventional wisdom at the time valued stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, but the A’s determined that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better predictors, and cheaper to obtain on the free market, to boot. As a result, the 2002 Athletics, with a payroll of $41 million (the third lowest in baseball), were able to compete in the market against teams like the Yankees, which had a payroll of $125 million. The book also discussed the A’s farm system and how it determined which players were more likely to develop into solid major league players, as well as the history of sabermetric analysis, a term coined by one of its pioneers Bill James after SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. Sabermetrics is basically concerned with determining the value of a player or team in current or past seasons and with predicting the value of a player or team in the future.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy: Equivocal as Predicted

The ill-advised, NIH-sponsored Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) is finally over. 839 human subjects were randomized to receive Na2EDTA infusions; 869 were randomized to receive placebo infusions. The results were announced at this weekend’s American Heart Association meeting in Los Angeles. In summary, the TACT authors report a slight advantage for chelation over placebo in the “primary composite endpoint,” a combination of five separate outcomes: death, myocardial infarction, stroke, coronary revascularization, and hospitalization for angina:

 

Although that result may seem intriguing, it becomes less so when the data are examined more carefully. First, it barely achieved the pre-ordained level of statistical significance, which was P=.036. Second, none of the individual components of the composite endpoint achieved statistical significance, and most of the absolute difference was in coronary revascularization–which is puzzling:

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

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The Light Fantastical

What would you do if your swimming pool was dirty?  Clean it of course.  But how?  Would you take out a few pails of water, treat the water in the buckets, then toss the water back into the pool and declare the pool clean?  And if it were the bathroom that needed cleaning, would you clean it by treating a few bucket fulls of water from the pool?  Seems an odd approach to me, but, metaphorically speaking, it is the approach used by ultraviolet (UV) and laser treatment of blood.

A weird bit medical therapy, I get the occasional ‘Hey Dr. Smartypants, what do you think of this treatment?’ email. UV blood irradiation is an odd treatment, with an peculiar history.

UV light does have many effects on tissues, as a trip to Hawaii can rapidly demonstrate to a pasty Oregonian. In my world UV is used to sterilize the environment and UV kills off everything from MRSA to C. difficile to tuberculosis.  We vent potentially microbially contaminated air to the outside in part to dilute any infection but more importantly  we know that most pathogens will die when exposed to solar UV light. Do not use UV light on people as a rule, since it causes tissue damage and we fret about injury to eyes and skin.

Back in the 1930’s a physician named Knott had two patients, one with a brain abscess and one with sepsis, who he evidently cured by irradiating the patients’ blood and returning it to them.*  His rationale was since cutaneous TB can be cured by UV light (the discovery resulted in the 1903 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology), perhaps other infections would be amenable to the therapy as well (1). (more…)

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