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Reading Medical Literature with a Critical Eye

A long time ago I read a study about what makes a good doctor. Some things you might think were important, like grades in medical school, were irrelevant. What correlated the best was the number of medical journals a doctor read. I don’t know whether that means good doctors read more journals or reading more journals makes a better doctor.

One thing I do know is that most of us could learn better journal-reading skills. When I was a busy clinician, I did what I suspect many busy clinicians do: I let the journals pile up for a while, then tackled a stack when I got motivated. I would skim the table of contents to pick out articles that I wanted to read, then I would read the abstracts of those articles. If the abstract interested me, I would read the discussion section of the article. If I was still interested, I might go back and read the entire article. But until after I retired, I never really developed the skills to evaluate the quality of the study.

I knew enough not to jump on the bandwagon the first time something was reported, because I had seen promising treatments bite the dust with further testing. But I really wasn’t aware of all the things that can go wrong in a study, and I didn’t know what to look for to decide if the results were really credible. I’m not an academic; I thought the authors knew a lot more than I did, and I trusted them to a degree that was not warranted. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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The “Art” of Clinical Decision-Making

Much nonsense has been written about the “art” of medicine. All too often, it amounts to a rationalization for doctors doing what they want to do instead of following the evidence. Medicine is not an art like painting. Neither is it a science like physics. It’s an applied science. Since patients are not all identical, it can be very tricky to decide how to apply the science to the individual.

The New England Journal of Medicine periodically runs a feature called “Clinical Decisions.” They present a case history, then they present 2 or 3 expert opinions on how to manage the case. They stress that none of the options can be considered either correct or incorrect. They allow readers to “vote” as well as to submit comments about why they voted that way. It is understood that the voting is only for interest and to stimulate discussion: it does not result in a consensus.

In April 2008 the topic was the management of carotid artery stenosis. The patient is a 67 year old man who has no symptoms but who is found to have a narrowing of 70-80% in one carotid artery and 20% in the other, putting him at increased risk for stroke. He has other risk factors for cardiovascular disease: hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and overweight. The 3 options are medical management, stent placement, and carotid endarterectomy. (more…)

Posted in: General, Science and Medicine

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The early detection of cancer and improved survival: More complicated than most people think

“Early detection of cancer saves lives.”

How many times have you heard this statement or something resembling it? It’s a common assumption (indeed, a seemingly common sense assumption) that detecting cancer early is always a good thing. Why wouldn’t it always be a good thing, after all? For many cancers, such as breast cancer and colon cancer, there’s little doubt tha early detection at the very least makes the job of treating the cancer easier. Also, the cancer is detected at an earlier stage almost by definition. But does earlier detection save lives? This question, as you might expect, depends upon the tumor, its biology, and the quality and cost of the screening modality used to detect the cancer. Indeed, it turns out that the question of whether early detection saves lives is a much more complicated question to answer than you probably think, a question that even many doctors have trouble with. It’s also a question that can be argued too far in the other direction. In other words, in the same way that boosters of early detection of various cancers may sometimes oversell the benefits of early detection, there is a contingent that takes a somewhat nihilistic view of the value of screening and argues that it doesn’t save lives.

A corrollary of the latter point is that some boosters of so-called “alternative” medicine take the complexity of evaluating the effect of early screening on cancer mortality and the known trend towards diagnosing earlier and earlier stage tumors as saying that our treatments for cancer are mostly worthless and that the only reason we are apparently doing better against cancer is because of early diagnosis of lesions that would never progress. Here is a typical such comment from a frequent commenter whose hyperbolic style will likely be immediately recognizable to regular readers here:

Most cancer goes away, or never progresses, even with NO medical treatment. Most people who get cancer never know it. At least in the past, before early diagnosis they never knew it.

Now many people are diagnosed and treated, and they never get sick or die from cancer. But this would have also been the case if they were never diagnosed or treated.

Maybe early diagnosis and treatment do save the lives of a small percentage of all who are treated. Maybe not. We don’t know.

As is so often the case with such simplistic black and white statements, there is a grain of truth buried under the absolutist statement but it’s buried so deep that it’s well-nigh unrecognizable. Because we see this sort of statement frequently, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss some of the issues that make the reduction of mortality from cancer so difficult to achieve through screening. I will do this in two parts, although the next part may not necessarily appear next week
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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“CAL”: a Medico-Legal Parable

Preamble

From the fall of 2000 to the winter of 2002, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts convened a Special Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medical Practitioners. There were 12 members: 6 legislators, 3 MDs, a naturopath, a lawyer who represented the New England School of Acupuncture, and the chairman, who was also the Director of the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure. At the start of deliberations two things became apparent: first, the Commission would concern itself almost exclusively with the petition of “naturopathic physicians” to become licensed health care practitioners in the Commonwealth*; second, there were only two recognizable, medically-sophisticated skeptics among the members. They were Arnold “Bud” Relman, the emeritus editor of the New England Journal of Medicine (appointed by the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine), and I (appointed by the Mass. Medical Society). We expected a third, an MD soon to be appointed by the Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Howard Koh.

Within a few weeks it became clear that the third MD would not be a skeptic. Dr. Koh, apparently thinking he had found an expert, appointed as his representative David Eisenberg, Director of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies. Dr. Koh must not have known that in 1997 Dr. Eisenberg had called for

A national listing of licensed alternative medical providers (e.g., chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, naturopaths, and homeopaths) in each of the 50 states as well as a uniform credentialing process.

Commissioner Koh also must not have known that Dr. Eisenberg had received or was currently receiving funds from several sources committed to furthering the ambitions of ”CAM” practitioners in general or of “naturopathic physicians” in particular: the NCCAM, the Fetzer Institute, the New York Chiropractic College, Cambridge Muscular Therapy Institute, New England School of Acupuncture, American Specialty Health Plan, and the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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The Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo #5

The Master Speaks

It was a delightful surprise for me, and I hope for you fans of the W^5/2, to log onto SBM on Thursday and find this blog by Dr. Wallace Sampson. As I mentioned in that long-ago posting that introduced the topic that eventually hatched the W^5/2, Dr. Sampson is my Yoda, when it comes to the topic that he named: Language Distortions. More about that below.

When the Goin’ Gets Tough…

OK, I’ll admit I threw you a curveball last time. That shaman thing rilly was a bit over the top, even if it rilly did come from an honest-to-god Sacred ”CAM” Scroll. Reminds me of something by Jonathan Swift…I can’t remember where…Gulliver, maybe?…he copied, verbatim, a ship captain’s log, recognizing it as a good satire by itself (extra credit for any reader who finds that reference). So I rilly can’t blame Stu (m’man!) and homeboy David Gorski for their reluctance to Waluate that Suckah. Stu, true to expectations, even submitted an additional explanation that was pretty frickin’ funny in its own right.

The Tough Get Goin’!

On the other hand, five readers Dug Down Deep to Deconstruct the Dang Deal, and they deserve full credit! The winner was, without question, Michelle B: she submitted the most comprehensive translation, even providing a comparative look at ancient and modern popular culture. Michelle B, for the W^5/2 #4, You Da Woman.

Second place goes to mmarsh, a newcomer to the W^5/2, who looks like a playah. Here’s hoping he/she becomes a regular.

Honorable mentions for DVMKurmes , Michael X (in an elliptical sort of way), and overshoot, each of whom gave it a shot, if, er, a somewhat abbreviated one. I wasn’t sure whether wertys was offering a formal Waluation or just an amusing observation, but either one is always welcome, of course. Same for the observation of reechard. Keep those cards and letters comin’!

This Week’s Entry

In honor of Dr. Sampson’s recent blog, here’s another snippet from the article whose abstract he translated:

The integrative medicine movement is fueled not only by the dissatisfaction of consumers with conventional medicine, but also by the growing discontent of physicians with changes in their profession. Physicians simply do not have the time to be what patients want them to be: open-minded, knowledgeable teachers and caregivers who can hear and understand their needs. Their unhappiness is not just the result of the limitations managed care has placed on their earning capacity. It is also a response to a loss of autonomy, to a loss of fulfilling relationships with patients, and, for some, to a sense that they are not truly helping people lead healthier lives. Significant numbers of physicians are now quitting medical practice, and applications to medical schools are decreasing precipitously.

As I’m sure you’ll already have noticed, the “plot” of that paragraph has a little something that’s different from the usual fare.

Happy Waluating!

The Misleading Language and Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo series:

  1. Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Integrative Medicine’
  2. Integrative Medicine: “Patient-Centered Care” is the new Medical Paternalism

Posted in: Humor, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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The Ethics of “CAM” Trials: Gonzo (Part VI)

Part V of this Blog argued that the NCCAM-sponsored trial of the “Gonzalez regimen” for cancer of the pancreas is unethical by numerous criteria.† To provide an illustration, it quoted a case history of one of the trial’s subjects, who had died in 2002.¹ It had been written by the subject’s friend, mathematician Susan Gurney. A similar story was told on ABC 20/20 in 2000, albeit not about a trial subject. Each of these cases demonstrates the wide breadth of Gonzalez’s quackery, as did his brush with the New York medical board during the 1990s.

This entry addresses some aspects of how those in charge of the trial failed in their duty to protect human subjects. By implication, it suggests what is necessary to prevent similar travesties in the future. It also addresses, to the small extent that the information exists, what appear to be the final ethical violations: first, that the trial will never be completed, thus having “expose[d] subjects to risks or inconvenience to no purpose.” Second, that Columbia University and the responsible investigators have no intention of explaining why.

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Integrative Medicine – Sectarians’ Trojan Horse

Integrative Medicine – Sectarians’ Trojan Horse leapfrogs science (Or, I can misuse language with the best of them…)

I stumbled across an article from Archives of Internal Medicine, 2002 (Integrative Medicine: Bringing medicine back to its roots. Arch Intern Med. 2002 Feb 25;162(4):395-7). It is one of the first authored by Andrew Weil on “Integrative Medicine “ – another is BMJ in 2001. This one he co-authored with Ralph Snyderman. Dr. Snyderman was dean of the Duke University med school, and is now upstairs as a chancellor of health affairs. He is one of the highest ranking academicians to express fondness for sectarian systems (they prefer “Integrative Medicine.”) Fondness in his case is an understatement. He appears to have fallen up to his frown into the sectarian vat and emerged transformed as the poster-prof for the Bravewell Collaboration, funding organization for the 36 departments and programs in US medical schools. Andrew Weil, of course is one of the prime movers of the “CAM” phenomenon, and may have invented the neo-term, “Integrative” – with the clever occult purpose of diverting attention away from plausibility and toward acceptance according to our suggested motto, “teach it and use it regardless of efficacy.“ He directs this activity from his spread near Tucson, where he also heads the U. of Arizona “integrative” program.

I experienced several problems on reading the article – mainly a cloud of dysphoria and a sense that of disagreement with it, but through a fog of obscure language, I could not identify why. One has to look closely at the language. The abstract alone yields enough for this entry. It displays language distortion by re-definition, as Kim Atwood recently explored, language obscurantism – use of generalizations and words with obscure or multiple meanings, and invented language. It also mis-states, misrepresents, assumes; these are established propaganda techniques and used to construct false labels on sectarianism’s Trojan Horse. After starting this I found a similar article by Edzard Ernst in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 1993. Nothing new under the sun…

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

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One Hand Clapping

CUSTOMER: Here’s one — nine pence.
DEAD PERSON: I’m not dead!
MORTICIAN: What?
CUSTOMER: Nothing — here’s your nine pence.
DEAD PERSON: I’m not dead!
MORTICIAN: Here — he says he’s not dead!
CUSTOMER: Yes, he is.
DEAD PERSON: I’m not!
MORTICIAN: He isn’t.
CUSTOMER: Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.
DEAD PERSON: I’m getting better!
CUSTOMER: No, you’re not — you’ll be stone dead in a moment.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

For some unexplained reason, people at work like to tell me of the positive interactions they have had with acupuncturists and chiropractors and others of that ilk. I must have a friendly face, but I keep checking my back for a “CAM me” sign.

One of the oncology nurses was telling me how she has chronic neck pain, and that she was skeptical about acupuncture, and would never recommend these therapies for one of her cancer patients, but she went to an acupuncturist, and by gosh and by golly if her pain wasn’t better, what do you think of that Mr. Skeptic?

Call me Dr. Skeptic, I replied. Show some respect for the dead.

It does make for an awkward conversation.

I cannot deny that she isn’t better. How can I argue that she doesn’t have decreased pain? She is the one who hurts and is the one who can best judge the degree of her discomfort.

“Nope. You are not better. Sorry. Wrong. You are still in the same amount of pain you were before.”

It is an untenable position.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo #4

That’s What I’m Talkin’ ’bout!

The new single-paragraph paradigm for the W^5/2 seems to have worked: there were 13 Waluations for the paragraph submitted in W^5/2 #3, every one of ‘em good. Several themes emerged; I’ll discuss them in no particular order.

  • When did you stop beating your wife? The passage charges that the “biomedical model,” by which is apparently meant modern medicine, does not consider anything other than “disturbances in biochemical processes.” “Holistic medicine,” on the other hand, recognizes the Complex Interplay Between Multiple Factors. DVMKurmes, pmoran, and wertys each exposed the ahistoricity of this claim.
  • Back to the Future. Speaking of ahistoricity (is that a word?), two readers, wertys and Falx, noticed a paradox: the proposed “paradigm shift” of “medicine today” always involves the resurrection of discredited, pre-scientific notions of yesterday.
  • Dr. Feelgood. Several readers, including DVMKurmes, Michelle B, rjstan, wertys, Stu (m’man!), Calli Arcale, and overshoot, alluded to the preference of at least some Woo-Seekers for feeling good (“a healing model”) over being good (“the curative model”). I admit that my shorthand description of the point is oversimplified, but there is truth in it nonetheless. The “feelgood” phenomenon is not to be confused with the similarly named
  • Feelings…Very Special Feelings. Alotta people just want, well, their feelings to be validated. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if it’s at the expense of competent medical care, as rjstan, Stu, and Falx noted, they could be Takin’ Trouble by the Tail. Or at least Losin’ a Lotta Lettuce.
  • It Takes a Worried (wo)Man to Sing a Worried Song. Both rjstan and DBonez called attention to the current societal obsession with “health,” frequently called “wellness,” which is an indispensable part of the “CAM”-scam. As rjstan and pmoran pointed out, many of the obsessed have nothing wrong but a surplus of funds. Why don’t those people just getta life?
  • By Hook and By Crook. Tools honed on Madison Avenue are in the kits of sCAMsters, say DVMKurmes, Michelle B, Stu, and ShawnMilo. That they are.
  • Mastering the Art of Zen Cooking. A lotta “reduction” makes my eyes glaze, so I was pleased that at least one reader, overshoot, cited the passage for its tired misportrayal of the “scientific reductionist view.” One o’these weeks we’ll discuss that at some length.
  • The Well-Hewn Tune of Thomas Kuhn is misrepresented by those we impugn, as asserted by wertys and implied by Joe. Another topic to discuss at more length some time.
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X…prophecies that…his…brother…Michael X…will…one day…rail…against…so-called…integrated…medicine.

This Week’s Entry:

A shaman is a type of spiritual healer distinguished by the practice of journeying to nonordinary reality to make contact with the world of spirits, to ask their direction in bringing healing back to people and the community. The journey is a controlled trance state that practitioners induce by using repetitive sound (drums, rattles) or movement (dancing) and occasionally by consuming plant substances (e.g., peyote or certain mushrooms). Characteristically experiential and cooperative, shamanic healing is found worldwide. It is fundamental to much traditional European, African, Asian, and Native American Indian folk practice and is rapidly gaining popularity among nonnative urban Americans, in which setting it is sometimes called neo-shamanism.

Happy Waluating!

The Misleading Language and Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo series:

  1. Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Integrative Medicine’
  2. Integrative Medicine: “Patient-Centered Care” is the new Medical Paternalism

Posted in: General, Humor, Science and Medicine

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Would you like a liver flush with that colon cleanse?

I have to apologize for last week’s post. I’m not apologizing for the subject matter (the obsession that reigns supreme among some alt-med aficionados over “cleansing” their colons to “purge toxins” and achieve the super-regularity of several bowel movements a day). Rather, I’m sorry I probably didn’t emphasize quite strongly enough just how disgusting one of the links that I included was. Among all the glowing testimonials found there touting how lovers of that “clean feeling” inside felt after having supposedly rid themselves of all that nasty fecal matter caked on the walls of their colons and achieved the Nirvana of many bowel movements a day (or, as one happy customer put it, “awesome adventures in the bathroom” and another put it, “I have not noticed anything really weird come out of me yet, but I am sure that there will be”), there were also links to various pictures people took of their own poop, complete with graphic descriptions. A couple of years ago when I showed an acquaintance of mine the Dr. Natura website shortly after I had discovered it, he declared it the “grossest thing on the web.” Sadly, I had to assure him that it was not–not by a longshot. However, I will try spare you any links to anything significantly grosser, preferring instead to leave finding them as an exercise for interested readers.

After having apologized for perhaps grossing out some of our readers, who come to this site for science- and evidence-based discussions of various so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” therapies, not pictures of the various excretions of the human body proudly lined up by the humans who produced them, I thought about what might be a suitable followup this week to such a topic. There really is only one followup that’s appropriate to this stuff, believe it or not. The problem with which I wrestled is that it really is pretty much as disgusting as last week’s topic, if not more so. (You’ll soon see why.) So there I was, trapped on the horns of a dilemma. Hesitating only momentarily, though, as any good general surgeon would do (remember, before I specialized in breast cancer surgery I was a general surgeon, as prone to dive into big brown on the loose as any other general surgeon), I decided just to dive in to the topic as I would have in the old days dived into a particularly foul belly full of purulence, particularly since this week’s “CAM” modality of choice claims to be able to take away a big chunk of the “bread and butter” practice of general surgery by curing a common surgical disease without all that nasty cutting, even if these days it’s almost always done laparoscopically.

So, are you ready for liver flushes? Of course you are. Don’t you want a way to “remove gallstones without surgery“?

Of course you do.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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