As a group blog, Science-Based Medicine brings a variety of perspectives to issues of science in medicine. However we align around a few core principles which define what science-based medicine is, and how it should be practiced. One principle we emphasize is the importance of subjecting the evaluation of all health interventions and treatments to a single, science-based standard. One of the biggest successes of the alternative medicine industry, worldwide, has been the embedding of different regulatory standards for the evaluation and approval of so-called “non-drug” products such as supplements, herbal products, and non-scientific treatment systems like homeopathy or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The implications cannot be overstated: this different and lower standard is now so firmly entrenched in most health systems that few seem to question its rationale, or consider the consequences. As a practicing pharmacist I spent the first decade of my career working within this regulatory framework without ever stepping back to question why we regulate some products differently. I started reading, took the red pill, and here I am today. (more…)
Archive for Science and Medicine
I wrote previously about bee venom therapy (BVT), also called apitherapy or bee sting therapy, as an emerging “alternative” therapy. Both use and research into BVT continue, providing an excellent example of the many things that are wrong with the CAM movement.
A recent Reuters article on the topic is also an excellent example of the frequent complete failure of the mainstream media in dealing with such topics. The articles discusses a Filipino bee keeper who decided to practice medicine based upon his personal anecdotal experience. Joel Magsaysay suffered a stroke and right-sided weakness. He attributes his recovery from the stroke partly to bee stings.
He admits he is not a physician and has no medical or scientific background. He has concluded that BVT works based upon anecdote along. He seems to be unaware of the unreliability of individual anecdotes in stroke recovery. Most patients will improve following a stroke. There are also two kinds of recovery, including neurological recovery from brain plasticity.
I wondered about the breakdown of the comments by both specialty and opinions about SBM. So I read the 226 comments and classified them by field and response. I classified each response as disapprove, approve or nuanced. It is not, obviously, a legitimate survey and there was more than a little subjective interpretation in deciding how to classify the responses. I have no doubt that others would get different results; it is not methodologically sound analysis. The discussion was in the Family Medicine & Primary Care section, so it is unlikely to be representative of any population, including that of Family Practitioners and Primary Care Physicians. I would bet, as in alternative medicine and most topics, Shruggies predominate and are the silent majority.
Even though I belong to what a commentator referred to as the not so silent “militant wing” of SBM, I was surprised at my results: (more…)
Voodoo science is a sort of background noise, annoying but rarely rising to a level that seriously interferes with genuine scientific discourse… The more serious threat is to the public, which is not often in a position to judge which claims are real and which are voodoo. Those who are fortunate enough to have chosen science as a career have an obligation to inform the public about voodoo science.
– Robert L. Park, PhD, 20001
Imagine you are an ordinary person with limited knowledge of science and medicine, and you see this 2010 video on tai chi and qi gong by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) — one of the agencies that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I am certain that the solemn voice of the Director of NCCAM, Dr. Josephine Briggs, talking about “rigorous scientific research” and “accurate, authoritative information on complementary and alternative medicine,” will leave you with a strong sense of confidence in her message.
In addition, despite the fine-print and the disclaimer, the appearance of Dr. Briggs in the video could be broadly viewed as a sign of tacit endorsement. Often, the very fact that a treatment is associated with the government is already a de facto stamp of approval and a warranty of efficacy. For instance, the publication below by the California Department of Consumer Affairs states that the NIH formally “endorses” acupuncture, simply because in 1997, a panel of scientists assessed its use and effectiveness for a variety of conditions. Since 1997 the scientific review of acupuncture by NIH has become synonymous with its endorsement, despite the fact that as a federal research agency, the NIH does not endorse any product, service, or treatment.
In October 26, 2011, a few weeks after Steve Jobs’ death, Josephine Briggs decided to do something she has never done before: she put an explicit disclaimer on her blog:
When making treatment decisions, unproven “alternative medicine” approaches should not replace conventional medical care approaches known to be useful or helpful. Simply put, the evidence is not there (emphasis added).2
Three paragraphs down the page, she goes on — with a candor rarely seen from her — that given the recent news about Steve Jobs’ choices for cancer treatment, all health decisions “should be guided by the best available evidence.”
There is no shortage of technology in my household: computers, smart phones and tablets of one kind or another. The nice thing about being a blogger and an app developer is I can justify it all. Well, mostly. The “It’s probably tax deductible” gambit can only be used so many times. It is remarkable how much of my life is filtered through the digital lens. I think if google glasses ever become a reality, my kids and I will be the first up to be permanently wired into the world. To my way of thinking, the Daemon haunted world looks like hog heaven.
There is an app for just about anything, many of which feed into my OCD. I keep track of my daily walk and I have walked over 1500 miles since July 1, 2011. When I developed my middle aged bloat I had the option of medications to control the metabolic results or lose some damn weight. Losing weight is simple in concept, hard in execution. Take in fewer calories than you expend and the weight will slowly, ever so maple bar free slowly, come off. It took 9 months to drop the 45 pounds needed, and I must say I feel just as old and creaky as I did before, but my labs are better. The opposite of the placebo effect: I am subjectively the same but am objectively better. I’ll take it. One of the cool features of the app I used, and still use, for calorie management is that it will take a picture of the bar code of food and give you the nutritional information for entry in the program. Amazing.
A fellow bugdoc sent me a link to story about Chinese Tongue diagnosis. The journal article has been accepted for publication as Automated Tongue Feature Extraction for ZHENG Classification in Traditional Chinese 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…)
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.
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:
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- American College of Cardiology
- American College of Physicians
- American College of Radiology
- American Gastroenterological Association
- American Society of Clinical Oncology
- American Society of Nephrology
- American Society of Nuclear Cardiology
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…)
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?
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.)