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“How do you feel about Evidence-Based Medicine?”

That was the question asked on a Medscape Connect discussion

I did a double-take. How do you feel? Could anybody object to the idea of basing treatments on evidence? The doctor who started the discussion asked:

Besides using EBM, a lot of my prescribing comes from anecdotal experience and intuition. How about you? Where do you get your information from that you use to treat your patients? Do you always ascribe to EBM, or do you deviate from it with certain medical conditions/patients?

I had naively thought that my profession uniformly embraced EBM. How could they not? The commenters broke my bubble big-time. Some of them summarily reject EBM… although it appears that what they are rejecting is not what I understand EBM to mean. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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What to make of Medical Dogs

For thousands of years we have guided the evolution of dogs to fulfill our needs for work and companionship.  Service dogs are pretty remarkable.  I love to watch herd dogs mimicking the dance of predator and prey.  When you see a guide dog help someone navigate a building or street, you can’t help but to be impressed by the dogs “devotion” and “skill”.

It seems there is a new canine skill in the news every day.  Now, in addition to the traditional roles guiding the blind and deaf, and helping the physically disabled, dogs are claimed to be able to calm autistic children, detect blood pressure changes and seizures, and find cancers. Dogs have been used in the bed bug epidemic to find the critters (with little scientific evidence of success).

Humans and dogs have co-evolved successfully to create strong owner-dog attachments (to the point of pit bull owners defending their dogs rather than acknowledging a dog’s danger to humans).  It seems intuitive, and is quite plausible, that dogs can calm us, can help lead us in ways analogous to their roles in nature (if “natural” can even be applied to dogs). It’s easy to see how herding behavior can be adapted into guide dog behavior, or hunting behavior into chemical detection.

What’s less clear is whether any of these roles are based on fact rather than intuition.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Choosing Wisely: Five things Pharmacists and Patients Should Question

Is the health care spending tide turning? Unnecessary medical investigations and overtreatment seems to have entered the public consciousness to an extent I can’t recall in the past. More and more, the merits of medical investigations such as mammograms and just this week, PSA tests are being being widely questioned. It’s about time. Previous attempts to critically appraise overall benefits and consequences of of medical technologies seem to have died out amidst cries of “rationing!” But this time, the focus has changed – this isn’t strictly a cost issue, but a quality of care issue.  It’s being championed by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIM) under the banner Choosing Wisely with the support of several medical organizations. The initiative is designed to promote a candid discussion between patient and physician: “Is this test or procedure necessary?”. Nine organizations are already participating, represent nearly 375,000 physicians. Each group developed its own list based on the following topic: Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question. Here are the lists published to date:

ABIM has partnered with Consumer Reports to prepare consumer-focused material as well, so patients can initiate these discussions with their physicians. How did this all come to be? A candid editorial from Howard Brody in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010:

In my view, organized medicine must reverse its current approach to the political negotiations over health care reform. I would propose that each specialty society commit itself immediately to appointing a blue-ribbon study panel to report, as soon as possible, that specialty’s “Top Five” list. The panels should include members with special expertise in clinical epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy, and evidence-based appraisal. The Top Five list would consist of five diagnostic tests or treatments that are very commonly ordered by members of that specialty, that are among the most expensive services provided, and that have been shown by the currently available evidence not to provide any meaningful benefit to at least some major categories of patients for whom they are commonly ordered. In short, the Top Five list would be a prescription for how, within that specialty, the most money could be saved most quickly without depriving any patient of meaningful medical benefit.

Health care professionals are, in general, self-regulating professions. That is, governments entrust them to set the standards for their profession and regulate members, in the public interest. Consequently, attempts by payors of services (i.e., government and insurers) to guide medical practice are usually met with substantial resistance. No-one wants insurers interfering in the patient-physician relationship. That’s why it’s exciting to see this initiative in place -it’s being driven by the medical profession itself.

As a pharmacist I’m also a member of a self-regulating profession, one in which the public places a considerable degree of trust in. In order to maintain the public’s confidence, it is essential that the pharmacy profession maintain the highest professional and ethical standards, and do its part to reduce unnecessary testing and investigations. With this in mind, I’ve taken up Brody’s challenge and developed my own list of Five things Pharmacists and Patients Should Question. While eliminating them may not provide the most savings to patients, they are pharmacy-based, widely offered, and offer little to no benefit to consumers. Here are my top five candidates: (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Cannibalism?

For all the goofiness that is SCAM, I never thought I would have a post with Cannibalism in the title.  The ability for humans to find imaginary healing properties in everything from duck liver and heart diluted 1:100 200 times, rhinoceroses horns, and waving hands over people to adjust energy fields that do not exist is remarkable.  Somehow I never thought Jeffrey Dahmer would be at the forefront of alternative therapies.

Wednesday evening while my wife was reading me the paper (it is how I usually consume the local newspaper, my wife reads stories she finds of interest out loud.  Otherwise I do not think I would bother with anything beyond the comics and sports page) she let it be known that Korean officials has confiscated medications containing aborted fetuses and stillborn babies.  Instead of the usual distracted, uh huh, that’s interesting, this caught my attention.  Say what?

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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The regulation of nonsense

 The most meticulous regulation of nonsense must still result in nonsense.

– Edzard Ernst, M.D., PhD., professor, Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter, UK

One necessity of licensing so-called “complementary and alternative,” or “CAM,” practitioners is to spell out exactly what is encompassed in the CAM scope of practice. This is unfortunate for the practitioners because it forces an exposé of the nonsensical precepts underlying their claims. For example,

‘Acupuncture’ refers to a form of health care, based on a theory of energetic physiology that describes and explains the interrelationship of the body organs or functions with an associated acupuncture point or combination of points located on ‘channels’ or ‘meridians’. . . Acupuncture points are stimulated in order to restore the normal function of the aforementioned organs or sets of functions.

(Delaware acupuncture practice act.)

[Chiropractic is] the science of adjusting the cause of the disease by realigning the spine, releasing pressure on nerves radiating from the spine to all parts of the body, and allowing the nerves to carry their full quota of health current (nerve energy) from the brain to all parts of the body.

(North Carolina chiropractic practice act.)

The practice of naturopathic medicine includes, but is not limited to, the following services:. . . ordering, administering, prescribing, or dispensing for preventive and therapeutic purposes: food, extracts of food, nutraceuticals, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, botanicals and their extracts, botanical medicines, herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, dietary supplements and nonprescription drugs as defined by the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, glandulars, protomorphogens, lifestyle counseling, hypnotherapy, biofeedback, dietary therapy, electrotherapy, galvanic therapy, oxygen, therapeutic devices, barrier devices for contraception, and minor office procedures, including otaining specimens to assess and treat disease. . .

(Minnesota naturopathic practic act.)

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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Another cancer tragedy in the making

I despise cancer quacks.

I know, I know. My saying that is probably akin to saying that the sun rises in the east, water is wet, and Donald Trump’s hair resembles nothing in nature. You know, brain-meltingly obvious statements. It’s true, though. I despise cancer quacks. It doesn’t much matter to me whether the quack is a true believer or a calculating con artist, the end result is the same: People with cancer throwing their one best chance to survive away chasing pixie dust and promises of “natural” cures without the toxicity that is the unfortunate byproduct of the surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy that are the mainstays of our current armamentarium against cancer. I’m a cancer surgeon. This I cannot abide, which is part of the reason I became active promoting science-based medicine, started my other blog, and then was so eager to join up when the opportunity to join this blog presented itself four years ago.

It’s hard to blame patients, too. After all, as I’ve described so many times before, curing cancer is hard. Very hard. Cancer is complicated. Incredibly complicated. Quacks make it sound easy and simple. They postulate One True Cause of Cancer, and, as a result, often what they represent as the One True Cure for All Cancer. Faced with a life-threatening disease and the possibility of chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation therapy, patients are understandably frightened and, if they don’t have a scientific background, susceptible to the blandishments of quacks. That’s what happened to a patient I wrote about long ago, and that’s what happened to Kim Tinkham.

It’s also what is happening right now to a woman named Danielle, and, worse, she’s falling victim to the same cancer quack. Worse still, from my point of view, she’s blogging it.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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Pseudoscience is not Cost Effective

Industrialized nations are in the middle of a health care crisis (some more than others), or at least a dilemma. As our medical technology advances, people are living longer, they are living with chronic diseases, and they are consuming more health care. The cost of this health care is rising faster than economic growth, so it is becoming a greater and greater burden on society. Many countries ration health care in one way or another in order to contain costs. Otherwise there is no easy or obvious solution and it’s likely that difficult choices will have to be made.

An interesting side effect of this dilemma is a renewed focus on the cost effectiveness of medicine. Effectiveness alone is not enough. We simply cannot afford, for example, to introduce a very expensive treatment for marginal improvement in outcome in a common disease. Different options can also be compared not only for their safety and efficacy, but for their cost effectiveness. In other words, we need to use cheaper alternatives when available rather than always reaching for the latest and greatest (and most expensive) treatment.

This situation provides an opportunity for science-based medicine. Treatments that are promoted as complementary and alternative (CAM) are often sold as cost effective because they are less expensive up front than standard medical care. We cannot, however, cede this argument to proponents of dubious therapies. Cheap does not mean cost effective. You have to be effective in order to be cost effective, and most of the dubious treatments that are marketed under the CAM umbrella are ineffective.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Plausibility bias? You say that as though that were a bad thing!

On Friday, you might have noticed that Mark Crislip hinted at a foreshadowing of a blog post to come. This is that blog post. He knew it was coming because when I saw the article that inspired it, I sent an e-mail to my fellow bloggers marking out my territory like a dog peeing on every tree or protecting my newfound topic like a mother bear protecting her cubs. In other words, I was telling them all to back off. This article is mine.

Mine! Mine! Mine! I tell you!

My extreme territorial tendencies (even towards my friends and colleagues) notwithstanding on this issue aside, if you read Mark’s post (and if you didn’t go back and read it now—seriously, go now), you might also remember that he was discussing a “reality bias” in science-based medicine (SBM), a bias that we like to call prior plausibility. In brief, positive randomized clinical trials (RCTs) testing highly implausible treatments are far more likely to be false positives than RCTs testing more plausible treatments. That is the lesson that John Ioannidis has taught us and that I’ve written about multiple times before, as have other SBM bloggers, most prominently Kimball Atwood, although nearly all of us have chimed in at one time or another about this issue.

Apparently a homeopath disagrees and expressed his disagreement in an article published last week online in Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy entitled Plausibility and evidence: the case of homeopathy. You’ll get an idea of what it is that affected us at SBM like the proverbial matador waving his cape in front of a bull by reading this brief passage from the abstract:

Prior disbelief in homeopathy is rooted in the perceived implausibility of any conceivable mechanism of action. Using the ‘crossword analogy’, we demonstrate that plausibility bias impedes assessment of the clinical evidence. Sweeping statements about the scientific impossibility of homeopathy are themselves unscientific: scientific statements must be precise and testable.

Scientific. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Of course, his being a homeopath is about as close to a guarantee as I can think of that a person doesn’t have the first clue what is and is not scientific. If he did, he wouldn’t be a homeopath. Still, this particular line of attack is often effective, whether yielded by a homeopath or other CAM apologist. After all, why not test these therapies in human beings and see if they work? What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it “close-minded” to claim that scientific considerations of prior plausibility consign homeopathy to the eternal dustbin of pseudoscience?

Not at all. There’s a difference between being open-minded and being so “open-minded” that your brains threaten to fall out. Guess which category homeopaths like Rutten fall into. But to hear them tell it, homeopathy is rejected because because we scientists have a “negative plausibility bias” towards it. At least, that’s what Rutten and some other homeopaths have been trying to convince us. This article seems to be an attempt to put some meat on the bones of their initial trial balloon of this argument published last summer, which Steve Novella duly deconstructed.

Before I dig in, however, I think it’s necessary for me to “confess” my bias and why I think it should be your bias too.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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Stop Making Sense

I usually rely on the Secret.  Every two weeks or so the Universe offers up some bit of wacky whimsey and I have a topic for an SBM blog entry.  This week the Universe has failed me. Nothing has crossed my LCD so I have no studies to evaluate and I have been unusually busy at work preventing my browsing the Interwebs for material.  But try telling that to the Managing Editor.   I write half to amuse myself, half to learn about the topic, and half to clarify in my own mind the topics at hand (1).  So this week  is content free idle thoughts for my own benefit.

I have been reading 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks. The book concerns topics in science that are unexplained by the current understanding  of the laws of the universe or contradict the dominant paradigm. Well, almost.  His final topic is homeopathy, and it is the one topic whose conclusions, while qualified, belong on Failblog.  The first chapter concerns dark matter and dark energy and how what we can see makes up only a small fraction of the content of the universe.   (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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Funding CAM Research

Paul Offit has published a thoughtful essay in the most recent Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in which he argues against funding research into complementary and alternative therapies (CAM). Offit is a leading critic of the anti-vaccine movement and has written popular books discrediting many of their claims, such as disproved claim for a connection between some vaccines or ingredients and risk of developing autism. In his article he mirrors points we have made here at SBM many times in the past.

Offit makes several salient points – the first being that the track record of research into CAM, mostly funded by the NCCAM, is pretty dismal.

“NCCAM officials have spent $375,000 to find that inhaling lemon and lavender scents does not promote wound healing; $750,000 to find that prayer does not cure AIDS or hasten recovery from breast-reconstruction surgery; $390,000 to find that ancient Indian remedies do not control type 2 diabetes; $700,000 to find that magnets do not treat arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or migraine headaches; and $406,000 to find that coffee enemas do not cure pancreatic cancer.”

The reason for the poor track record is fairly simple to identify – by definition CAM includes treatments that are scientifically implausible, which means there is a low prior probability that they will work. If the treatments were scientifically plausible then they wouldn’t be alternative.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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