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Health care and the Stimulus Plan

In my last post, I told you a little story about using science- and evidence-based medicine to improve health care.    The focus was primarily on preventing an iatrogenic illness, namely intravenous catheter infections.  A researcher came up with a plausible idea for an intervention, studied it, and found it to be successful—the intervention was science-based in that it was proposed based on sound scientific principles; and it is now evidence-based, in that we now know that this intervention prevents infections.

But we don’t really have an easily accessible repository of evidence-based interventions.  Every field has its own standards, its own literature, and its up to each individual practitioner to interpret the data on their own.

There are some data bases, such as the USPSTF which gives data for preventative services, and PIER, a service of the American College of Physicians, which gives information on specific diseases and includes interpretations of evidence.  There’s also the Cochrane Collaborative, which helps evaluate evidence.   But there is no single “go-to” site for these things, and while we follow evidence-based guidelines in much of our care, there are many times when evidence isn’t just hard to find but is actually unavailable.

Give our “evidence gap”, I was heartened to see this story in the New York Times.   The Times reports that the economic stimulus bill will include over a billion dollars to fund research into medical evidence.  This is a good thing, but it’s bound to be controversial.  But I’ve mentioned before that we need to spend money to improve our medical infrastructure, and this could be a step in the right direction.

Much of what we do in medicine is science-based, and much of it has evidence to support it, but some does not.  There are plenty of open questions about how we practice medicine, and in order to deliver safe, quality care, we need answers. One example was explored by Dr. Gorski earlier.  In another example, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared surgical and non-surgical therapy for arthritis of the knee.  Surgery made logical, scientific sense, but it had never  been carefully compared to non-surgical therapy.  The study showed that conservative therapy, which is cheaper and less invasive, was just as effective as surgery.  This doesn’t mean that surgery will never help, but it is strong evidence that we should treat arthritis of the knee more conservatively. Studies like this aren’t free, but if their results are reliable and repeatable, they may save us a lot of money and possible surgical complications.

So the idea of investing more money into comparing medical treatments makes sense, both scientifically and economically.  Now there’s a lot of predictable objections about this; people are worried about physician autonomy and government interference.

As Congress translated the idea into legislation, it became a lightning rod for pharmaceutical and medical-device lobbyists, who fear the findings will be used by insurers or the government to deny coverage for more expensive treatments and, thus, to ration care.

In addition, Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators complained that the legislation would allow the federal government to intrude in a person’s health care by enforcing clinical guidelines and treatment protocols.

I’m not sure that the legislation says anything about enforcing clinical guidelines, but to be fair, there is some implication along those lines.

And so what?  Right now, my patients’ insurance programs do exactly the same thing—if I prescribe an angiotensin receptor blocker for blood pressure control, I’m going to be asked to justify why I am giving this rather than the cheaper and as-effective ACE-inhibitor.  The answer is usually that the ACE-I caused side-effects, but the question isn’t stupid.  Why should an insurer pay more when an equally effective, cheaper alternative is available?

If we have more evidence to work with, we can continue to make even better decisions regarding care.  It may seem intrusive, but it’s not very different from what we do already.  And honestly, I’d like to know if I’m more likely to get relief of my lumbar radiculopathy from surgery or from conservative therapy.  I will not be offended in the least if my surgeon got a call from my insurer asking if surgery was really my best option, as long as the answer was supported by good evidence.

It rings rather hollow when people protest against gaining more knowledge.  Libertarian types complain that this will inevitably lead to government interference (and it might, and maybe it should) but to ignore the need for evidence is absurd.  We, as physicians and patients, need more knowledge, not less, and we shouldn’t be afraid of where the data lead.  Once we have the data, we can sit down for a good, heated discussion about what to do with it.  But putting our collective heads in the sand is probably not a useful response.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Another challenge to surgical dogma

Better late than never with this one.

The dogma that I’m referring to is the remaining practice of using NG tubes in anyone with upper gastrointestinal surgery (liver, stomach, pancreas, duodenum, proximal small intestine) and then placing a jejunostomy tube (a tube, also often called a J-tube, that goes into the jejunum, or the proximal part of the small intestine, through which feedings can be given). The rationale for this was that the peristalsis of the small bowel returns almost immediately; it’s the large bowel and stomach whose return of peristalsis is delayed. Consequently, liquid tube feedings, it was thought, could be given beyond the point of surgery into the small bowel because if there is one surgical dogma that the evidence generally supports and probably always will, it’s always better to use the gut for nutrition than to use total parenteral nutrition (TPN, or feeding by veins). Moreover, there was evidence that such feedings had a protective effect on the lining of the bowel, preventing a phenomenon known as bacterial translocation, in which bacteria could pass through the compromised lining of the bowel after surgical stress. The price, however, was the placement of a tube into the proximal intestine, a procedure that, while safe, was definitely not without complications, some of which (such as bowel perforation) could be serious and require reoperation.

Challenging this dogma is the largest multicenter randomized study yet looking at this question: Which is better, bowel rest (NPO) and J-tube feedings or just letting the patient eat the next day? The study comes out of Norway1 and involved 453 patients. Blinding, much less double blinding, was, as is the case in many surgical trials, not possible because of the very nature of the question being examined, but other than that the design of the study was about as strong as a surgeon could ask for. Basically, patients were randomized to a routine of NPO and J-tube feeding until flatus indicated return of bowel function versus normal food at will beginning on postoperative day one; the experimental design is summarized below:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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Live Blood Analysis: The Modern Auguries

I saw a patient last week who was self referred. He had been seeing a DC/ND for a variety of symptoms that turned out to be asthma. Not that the DC/ND made that diagnosis. His DC/ND diagnosed him with an infection, based on live blood analysis, and offered the patient a colonic detox as a cure. My patient thought he should get a second opinion before he submitted to a cleansing enema, always a good policy

Live blood analysis to diagnose an infection. I had never heard of the technique, but thanks to the google and the interwebs, I was soon immersed in the field.

In live blood analysis, the “physician” takes a drop of the patients blood and examines it under a high power phase contrast or a darkfield microscope. Changes in the constituents of the blood are noted and linked to a variety of ills.

It is an impressive and expensive system: microscopes and various support equipment start at around $5000 (3). However, live blood analysis has the opportunity to be lucrative in the right hands as the patient often gets weekly analysis to see how the interventions (usually supplements sold by the blood analyst) are working. Evidently in the hands of a skilled snake oil salesman, an income of $100,000 a year to more can be generated (8).

Live blood analysis is one of these alternative methodologies that has a hint of legitimacy that is extrapolated far out of proportion to its validity.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Research, Minus Science, Equals Gossip

“A person is smart. People are stupid.”

- Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), Men In Black

Regular readers of my blog know how passionate I am about protecting the public from misleading health information. I have witnessed first-hand many well-meaning attempts to “empower consumers” with Web 2.0 tools. Unfortunately, they were designed without a clear understanding of the scientific method, basic statistics, or in some cases, common sense.

Let me first say that I desperately want my patients to be knowledgeable about their disease or condition. The quality of their self-care depends on that, and I regularly point each of them to trusted sources of health information so that they can be fully informed about all aspects of their health. Informed decisions are founded upon good information. But when the foundation is corrupt – consumer empowerment collapses like a house of cards.

There is growing support in the consumer-driven healthcare movement for a phenomenon known as “the wisdom of crowds.” The idea is that the collective input of a large number of consumers can be a driving force for change – and is a powerful avenue for the advancement of science. It was further suggested (in a recent lecture on Health 2.0), that websites that enable patients to “conduct their own clinical trials” are the bold new frontier of research. This assertion betrays a lack of understanding of basic scientific principles. In healthcare we often say, “the plural of anecdote is not data” and I would translate that to “research minus science equals gossip.” Let me give you some examples of Health 2.0 gone wild:

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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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More evidence that CAM/IM advocates see health care reform as an opportunity to claim legitimacy

Four weeks ago (was it really that long?), I wrote one of my usual lengthy essays for this blog in which I analyzed two editorials published by some very famous advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM)/”integrative medicine” (IM). They included one in that credulous repository of all things antivaccine The Huffington Post (no, this isn’t about vaccines, but I can’t resist pointing out at every turn the antivaccine slant of that rather famous political blog) and in the Wall Street Journal. The first, published in HuffPo and written by Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and Rustum Roy, was entitled Leaving the Sinking Ship, while the second added Dean Ornish to its team, switched from the highly liberal venue of hte previous article to the conservative WSJ, and was entitled “Alternative” Medicine Is Mainstream: The evidence is mounting that diet and lifestyle are the best cures for our worst afflictions. In doing so, advocates of unscientific and even pseudoscientific faith-based medical treatments seemingly covered the entire span of political thought, from highly liberal to highly conservative, with their message.

That message, as I have argued, along with Wally Sampson, Kimball Atwood, Val Jones, and Peter Lipson, is, to boil it down to its essence, this: The new Obama Administration has promised to make health care reform one of its top priorities, and CAM/IM advocates want to take advantage of this movement for reform as the “foot in the door” behind which they try to muscle their way in to be treated by the government as co-equal with established, science- and evidence-based medicine. How do they plan on doing this? As I have discussed before, they plan on doing this by coopting disease “prevention” strategies as being CAM/IM and using them as a Trojan horse. When the government brings the giant wooden horse into the fortress of government health care, along with the bona fide prevention strategies of diet and exercise a whole lot of woo will jump out of the belly of that horse and open the fortress doors to let in its comrades. Indeed, the same strategy can be seen in how CAM/IM advocates have coopted the Institute of Medicine with a joint conference.

In other words, because CAM/IM advocates have succeeded so well in tying the perfectly acceptable science- and evidence-based modalities of diet and exercise, as well as ghettoizing the respected pharmacology discipline of pharmacognosy by associating it with herbalism and, in essence, bringing it under the CAM umbrella, where it became unfairly and incorrectly tainted with its association with all the other woo that falls under the CAM/IM mantle, they expect that renewing an emphasis on diet and exercise by their definition and on their terms will lead to the opening of the door into the promised land of having their modalities be funded by the government. It’s a very conscious strategy, which is why Chopra et al’s articles so clearly tried to convince readers that diet and exercise are CAM/IM. Unfortunately, that they are able to do this with such success is in part because science- and evidence-based practitioners arguably underemphasize such health prevention strategies.

I learned of another salvo fired off by CAM/IM advocates through my somehow finding myself on the mailing list for The Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. family of medical journals. Unfortunately, one of the journals published by the Liebert group is the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This particular e-mail was advertising an editorial written by a chiropractor named Daniel Redwood that spells out in the most detailed manner exactly how CAM/IM advocates plan on hijacking any health care reform that the Obama Administration might come up in order to persuade the government to fund what Wally frequently terms “sectarian medicine” and I simply like to call unscientific. The editorial is freely available to all (unlike the contents of JACM) and entitled Alternative and Complementary Medicine Should Have Role in New Era of Health Care Reform. It’s about as blatant a description of the goals of the CAM/IM movement as I have ever seen.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Yes We Can! We Can Abolish the NCCAM! Part III

A Reminder…

…of why we keep harping on this. A couple of days ago The Scientist reported that the “economic stimulus package” may include a windfall for the NIH:

Senate OKs big NIH bump

Posted by Bob Grant

[Entry posted at 4th February 2009 04:12 PM GMT]

The US Senate, which is furiously debating the details of the economic stimulus package making its way through Congress, passed an amendment yesterday (Feb. 3) to add $6.5 billion in National Institutes of Health funding on top of the $3.5 billion already allotted to the agency in the bill…

Exactly how an NIH funding increase will be spent remains to be determined.

You can bet that if this happens, the NCCAM will be licking its chops for some of that lettuce. Let’s continue to explore why it shouldn’t get any…

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Posted in: Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Keeping ‘em alive

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the frequent complaints I hear about science-based medicine is that it is dangerous.  Of course, it’s true—so is riding in a train, but it sure beats walking.  And that’s the danger of this particular fallacy—yes, medicine is a sharp tool, but it’s also an effective tool, so we must use it properly.  And this is where the tools of evidence- and science-based medicine can give us a hand.

The potential harms of modern medicine must be approached carefully.  If they are ignored or approached in an ineffective way, we’ll miss an opportunity to save lives.  This comment from my other blog is typical:

You asked if so-called traditional Chinese medicine has ever eradicated any diseases. Well, yes. It pretty much eradicated one that is in epidemic numbers in the U.S. and most of the developed world: Iatrogenic disease.

This is wrong is so many ways.  The definition of “iatrogenic” is difficult.  The traditional definition is “adverse effects of medical treatment or advice.”  I suppose one could broaden this to include failure to give proper advice, as inaction by a physician has similar consequences to action, but perhaps that is a discussion for another day.

The way in which this is truly wrong is the false dichotomy. Yes, medical errors would be reduced to zero if we didn’t treat people, but the consequences would be rather dramatic.  Our goal should not be to abandon modern medicine because it sometimes causes harm.  Our goal is to reduce iatrogenic illness in a science-based way.

Strangely enough, this is being done.  A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine (effectively discussed here) described a study in which surgical checklists reduced errors.  This study was based on earlier work by Peter Provonost of Johns Hopkins, the subject of a terrific piece in the New Yorker.  (Related commentary here.)
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Yes We Can! We Can Abolish the NCCAM! Part II

Pseudoscience and Dishonesty, continued: “Reliable Information”?

In the previous post, we examined misrepresentations by the late National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Director Stephen Straus and Margaret Chesney, written in 2006 as a rebuttal to a critical article by Donald Marcus and Arthur Grollman in Science magazine. Here, we continue. According to Straus and Chesney:

Before the establishment of NCCAM, there was no central source of CAM information. NCCAM brings evidence-based information on CAM to the public, practitioners, and researchers. NCCAM disseminates research findings and provides reliable information about commonly used CAM practices through numerous channels, including…its award-winning Web site… NCCAM’s communications program deals with a field that is controversial, that has many critics, and that reaches a public that wants reliable information.

Before the establishment of the NCCAM, there was an excellent source of reliable information about “CAM”: Quackwatch. It continues to be the most comprehensive source of such information.

The NCCAM itself does not provide “reliable information about commonly used ‘CAM’ practices.” Rather, it bends over backward—in some instances making categorically false statements—to portray absurd, dangerous, implausible, or disproved practices as safer and more promising than they are.

Examples follow, but first please consider an implicit yet abundant and compelling piece of evidence that has left several of us (1, 2, 3) scratching our heads since the NCCAM began: each year the Center bestows numerous grants for the purpose of teaching “CAM” (not “CAM research”) to health professionals or for “integrating CAM” into various programs, or for establishing “integrative medicine” centers. For examples, look here. Isn’t this putting the cart before the horse? How can this be viewed as anything other than promoting “CAM”? Consider that Straus and Chesney also wrote:

In the early years of NCCAM, there was a sense of urgency to scientifically assess a range of CAM therapies that had been in long use by the public in the absence of proof of safety or efficacy.

In the subsequent 8 years, there has not been a burgeoning list of “CAM therapies” that have been proven safe and effective. The number of treatments that would qualify for that list, or for a comparable list before the creation of the NCCAM is, if you’ll excuse the rudeness of reliable information,…zero. In other words, the NCCAM admits that the treatments that characterize its “CAM integration” projects have not been shown safe and effective.

But back to a few explicit examples of unreliable information.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Reality Deniers

“You have an irrational belief in rational thought.” ~Dr David Scholes, directed towards me.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” ~T.S. Eliot

I just finished the book Mathematical Cranks by Underwood Dudley, part of a trifecta of skeptical mathematics books.

Doctor Dudley is a professor of mathematics at Depau University and a connoisseur of cranks with a mathematical bent.

What is a mathematical crank?

Mathematics is a peculiar field. Whether or not some aspects of mathematics exist independent of humans is an ongoing debate, but within its axioms and proofs is a consistent body of well defined, internally consistent knowledge.

Within that knowledge, ideas can, under the rules of mathematics and logic, can be proved or disproved, to be absolutely true or false or to be impossible.

No prior plausibility that pester the world of scientific medicine and the evaluation of woo. No borderline p values that hint at effects. No biologic variability. No placebo effect. No investigator or patient bias. No placebo effect. No N rays. No unproven water memory or meridians or subluxations.

Just clean, beautiful, mathematics. True or false. Possible or impossible. I simplify a bit, but mathematics, especially at the lower levels, is an internally consistent field of study. What happens in the math of 11 dimension string theory is beyond my puny intellect.

In mathematics there are things that are impossible. Absolutely impossible. No ifs, ands, or buts. Impossible. Can’t be done no how no way. In the world of mathematics, things are not only impossible, they are proven truly impossible within the boundaries of the mathematical discipline.

An example of mathematical impossibility is the quadrature of the circle, also called squaring the circle.

It is impossible, using only a straight edge ruler and a compass, to construct a square with the same area as a given circle. It was proved to be impossible in 1882 by Lindeman. Not improbable or unlikely or very, very, very difficult. With in mathematical reality, it is impossible.

Just because it is impossible does not prevent people from attempting to square the circle. They send these ‘proofs’ to mathematicians for comment.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Psychiatry-Bashing

Psychiatry is arguably the least science-based of the medical specialties. Because of that, it comes in for a lot of criticism. Much of the criticism is justified, but some critics make the mistake of dismissing even the possibility that psychiatry could be scientific. They throw the baby out with the bathwater. I agree that psychiatry has a lot of very dirty bathwater, but there is also a very healthy baby in there that should be kept, cherished, nourished, and helped to grow – scientifically.

Common criticisms in the media

  • We are over-medicating our children, producing a generation of drugged zombies.
  • We are using medication indiscriminately for people who don’t fit the diagnosis (i.e. antidepressants for people who only have normal mood fluctuations and life problems).
  • Antidepressants lead to violence and suicide.
  • Psychotropic medications all have terrible side effects.
  • Antidepressants are no better than placebo.
  • Psychotherapies are no better than talking to a friend.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a barbaric, damaging assault with no redeeming value.
  • And we all remember how Tom Cruise attacked Brooke Shields on the issue of postpartum depression.

Thomas Szasz: Mental Illness is a Myth

Thomas Szasz goes even further: he rejects the whole concept of mental illness and considers it a plot to interfere with people’s human rights. He says:

  • Psychiatric diagnoses are not valid because they are based on symptoms rather than on objective tests. (Steve Novella has pointed out that there are other well-established diagnoses like migraine that cannot be verified by any objective tests.)
  • Mental illness is a myth: unusual behavior does not constitute a disease.
  • Psychiatric diagnoses are an arbitrary construct of society to facilitate control of individuals whose behavior does not conform.
  • Involuntary commitment is never justified even for the protection of the patient: patients always have the right to refuse treatment even if that means they will die. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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