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The Importance and Limitations of Peer-Review

Peer-review is a critical part of the functioning of the scientific community, of quality control, and the self corrective nature of science. But it is no panacea. It is helpful to understand what it is, and what it isn’t, its uses and abuses.

Overview

When the statement is made that research is “peer-reviewed” this is usually meant to refer to the fact that it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Different scientific disciplines have different mechanisms for determining which journals are legitimately peer-reviewed. In medicine the National Library of Medicine (NLM) has rules for peer-review and they decide on a case by case basis which journals get their stamp of approval. Such journals are then listed as peer-reviewed.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Snipers – A Short Reflection

The blogosphere held no fascination for me before my involvement with sciencebasedmedicine.com. I had checked into a few blogs, and found some capturing attention, allowing exploration of ideas and personal views in greater scope than allowed for in scientific papers. But many seemed not to expand discussion after an original post.  When the blogger would describe some series of events or ideas, there would follow a series of pro and con short commentaries, whose authors seemed to enjoy sniping at irrelevant issues. The emotional level rose with each series of exchanges. One had to search for pages with comments that expanded knowledge, and were not just argumentative.Some commenters took off on small details in the original.. Then ensued a series of yes I did – no I didn‘t, you said – I said, you said – I meant, you‘re a blank – you’re a worse blank, and on, as readers know.

I wrote an article or two for an online ‘zine, and the format allowed for extended exchanges, like the blogs. Comments followed a similar pattern. They continued for 2 weeks. Same thing happened when I critiqued traditional Chinese medicine, implausible claims, ethics of “CAM” in editorials in an online journal. Questions there were screened by editors, but I filled more space  elaborating answers than I was allowed by the word limit to the original articles. I noted that even news items in online news sources were followed by series of comments, challenges, counterchallenges and on they went, often getting uncomfortably personal. Lost in some of this was the meat of the original article as small point after smaller point appeared.

All this is old stuff to most of you readers, but to me, it was new. And I wondered not only about the format and policies that allowed ongoing sniping, but had to look at my own reactions, often surging in the same direction of telling people off. I keep telling myself not to answer snipes, but the temptation sometimes wins. Too much chance to show cleverness and to enjoy that basic, innate joy of putting it to someone who wrote something that really ticked me off.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Science and Medicine

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Recognizing Dubious Health Devices

The public is often left to fend for themselves in the marketplace of medical devices and health aids. Current regulations in most countries are inadequate to prevent grossly misleading claims in advertising and to provide adequate evidence for safety and effectiveness for products on the market. So it is helpful for consumers to be aware of the red flags for dubious devices to watch out for.

I came across this ad for The Rebuilder, which purports to be a treatment for painful neuropathy.  About 2.4% of the population has some kind of peripheral nerve damage (neuropathy), which means there are about 7.2 million Americans with neuropathy. In most cases there is no cure (although there is effective treatment for some of the symptoms of neuropathy) so it is not surprising that neuropathy is a common target for questionable treatments and devices.

The ad is full of misleading or unsupported claims and blatant misinformation and provides an excellent example of the many features of quackery marketing to look out for.

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Posted in: Medical devices, Science and Medicine

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Pro-CAM Wikipedia – Skeptics Need Not Apply

The internet is arguably the ultimate expression of democracy and the free market. For the cost of internet access anyone can pull up a virtual soap box and preach to the world. There are no real gatekeepers, and the public can vote with their search entries, clicks, and links. Every point of view can be catered to and every special interest satisfied. Type in any obscure term or concept into Google and see how many hits you get (“banana farming” yielded 1,470,000 hits).

There is potentially a downside to this as well, however. Because there are websites fashioned for every opinion and perspective no one has to venture far out of their intellectual comfort zone. Virtual communities of like-minded individuals can gather and reinforce their prejudices, and to varying degrees keep out contrary opinions. This is harmless when dealing with aesthetic tastes, but can be stifling to intellectual discourse.

On the other hand defining the mission, scope, and character of a blog, website, or forum is necessary to some degree. Every site does not have to be a free-for-all. If biologists want a forum to politely discuss biological topics in a collegial fashion they have the right to create a virtual space in which to do that, and whoever owns and operates the site has the right to mandate whatever rules they wish. Allowing political activists to overrun the site and hijack the conversation would be counterproductive. Like most things a healthy balance probably works best.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Polypharmacy – Is It Evidence-Based?

Polypharmacy essentially means taking too many pills. It’s a real problem, especially in the elderly.

A family doctor gives an elderly patient one pill for diabetes, another for high blood pressure, and another to lower cholesterol. The patient sees a rheumatologist for his arthritis and gets arthritis pills. Then he sees a psychiatrist for depression and gets an antidepressant. He takes a sleeping pill. He takes a laxative. He buys some over-the-counter cold medicine and Tylenol. Then he goes to his local GNC store and buys a smorgasbord of vitamins, minerals, supplements and herbal products. It would be surprising if some of these didn’t interact with each other to cause some problems.

One doctor may not know what the other doctors have prescribed. The patient may not think to tell his doctors about the non-prescription products he’s taking. Or he may not want to admit it for fear the doctors will disapprove. (more…)

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

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The Orange Man

The first thing that struck me about him was that he was orange.

It was not a shade of orange I had ever ever encountered before in a patient. It was a yellowish orange, an almost artificial-looking color. At first I wondered if he was suffering from liver failure with jaundice, but this orange was just not the right shade of yellow for jaundice, and his sclerae were not yellow. I also considered whether he was suffering from renal failure, but the orange color of his skin didn’t quite match the rather coppery color that some patients suffering from longstanding renal failure necessitating dialysis sometimes acquire. I was puzzled. His chart said that he was being admitted for surgery for rectal cancer. So I sent the intern in to get the story, do the history and physical, and get him all plugged in for his bowel prep. Believe it or not, there was actually a time when it was not all that uncommon for patients to come into the hospital the night before major abdominal surgery in order to undergo a preoperative bowel prep, rather than being forced by their insurance companies to undergo the torture of drinking four liters of the purgative known as Go-Lytely–a misnomer, if ever there was one!–at home and spending the next several hours having to rush periodically to the toilet, waiting in vain for the liquid exploding out of their hind end to run clear.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 5: Penultimate Words

My Discussion with Dr. P

After last week’s post, Dr. Peter Moran answered with more salient points. I’ll spend this week discussing those, because I share Dr. Moran’s “interest in examining the kind of messages we are putting out.” Acknowledging the inequality inherent in his not being the blog author, I’ll offer the last word to Dr. Moran by ending this series* and letting whatever comments he may have in response to today’s post be the last, at least for now.

Here is Dr. Moran’s response to my response:

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

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Politics of N of 1 pseudoscience

More Politics

Medicine’s ethics and basis in science hang by a thread at times. At least in the US of A. I will present a few examples and illustrate them with correlates from other fields in which decisions with wide effects are sometimes made by the whim of one person. And that’s not just the declaring of war or whatever we call it these days.Start with an anecdote of mine from the mid-1970s or so. I somehow got involved in a dispute with the staff of then Gov. Jerry Brown over his proposal to de-license medical practice. He sent out early holistic medicine vibes and viewed health and medicine as fields open to anyone to practice by simply hanging out a shingle. I asked to meet with my state assemblyman and complained about the situation. I stated that physicians determined what medical practice is. He smiled benevolently and broke the news. “No, doc, we (in state government) do.“

I immediately recognized what he was saying. All licensure is granted by the state, and all regulations and laws referring to each occupation’s license are determined essentially by a majority vote and a governor’s signature. All those heroes in the history of medicine and science not withstanding. It was an awakening.

Jerry Brown’s vision did not materialize and he came to recognize holistic and alternative medicines as so much goofy stuff and quackery, as he later confided at a fund-raiser (yes, I went.)

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

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Animal rights terrorists endanger science-based medicine

I’m a bit ticked off right now, enough that I thought I’d break with tradition and do an extra post today. Don’t worry; it’ll be brief. It will also be angry, more so than you are perhaps used to hearing on this blog. However, I think my anger is justified, and I hope that Steve Novella–and you–will understand. I view the problem that I am about to discuss to be at least as serious a threat to science-based medicine as any infiltration of woo into medical schools or residency programs.

Remember back in February, when I discussed how animal rights terrorists had been harassing a researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC)? At the time, protesters attempted a home invasion of a researcher, leading to a police response where a home was searched by the police. This time around, however, these animal rights thugs have turned violent–again:

SANTA CRUZ — The FBI today is expected to take over the investigation of the Saturday morning firebombings of a car and of a Westside home belonging to two UC Santa Cruz biomedical researchers who conduct experiments on animals.

Santa Cruz police officials said Sunday the case will be handed to the FBI to investigate as domestic terrorism while local authorities explore additional security measures for the 13 UCSC researchers listed in a threatening animal-rights pamphlet found in a downtown coffee shop last week.

“The FBI has additional resources and intelligence into groups and individuals that might have the proclivity to carry out this kind of activity,” police Capt. Steve Clark said. “The FBI has a whole other toolbox of tools for this kind of investigation.”

The front porch of a faculty member’s home on Village Circle off High Street was hit with a firebomb about 5:40 a.m. Saturday, police said. The bomb ignited the front door of the home and filled the house with smoke, police said. About the same time, a Volvo station wagon parked in a faculty member’s on-campus driveway on Dickens Way was destroyed by a firebomb, police said.

Clark described the bombs as devices, which he said investigators have seen used by animals rights activists in the past, as “Molotov cocktail on steroids.”

That no one was seriously injured or died, especially the researcher’s children, is incredibly fortunate. As in previous cases, these two firebombing attacks were the culmination of a campaign of intimidation:

This appears to be the latest in a string of incidents targeting UCSC researchers and others in Santa Cruz.

Fliers identifying 13 UCSC scientists, some of whom use mice, fruit flies and other nonprimate creatures in their research, were discovered at a downtown coffee shop Tuesday. The fliers say, “Animal abusers everywhere beware; we know where you live; we know where you work; we will never back down until you end your abuse.” The names, home addresses, home phone numbers and photos of researchers were published on the fliers.

Fruit flies? Drosophila? How messed up do you have to be to threaten violence over Drosophila experiments? Why aren’t they threatening violence over the trillions upon trillions of E. coli or yeast that die in the name of science in molecular biology labs every day?
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Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 4: is “CAM” the only Alternative? And: the Physician as Expert Consultant

Dr. Moran Weighs In

In last week’s post, I dubbed Dr. Peter Moran the “conscience” of SBM, citing his commitment to doing what’s best for individual patients even if, in theory at least, that may involve some manner of benign but fanciful treatments. I countered with my own opinion that honesty and integrity are necessary parts of any discussion with a patient, and that they, in turn, must not conflict with science and reason.* I added passages from a couple of key medical ethics treatises to support my assertion. Dr. Moran’s response, thoughtful and provocative as always, was buried in the midst of other commenters’ tangential arguments about the theory of evolution. Rather than continue its exile there, I reprint it here to give it the exposure that it deserves:

A blatant appeal to authority, but one that I mostly agree with. The difference between us is that I insist that medicine is about an infinite number of individual contexts and I see many examples where ethical absolutes (actually these are ethical guidelines rather than directives) do not apply or don’t seem to apply very well.

We scientists are ever-so cautious when making scientific judgments about complex matters; let’s not pretend that arriving at absolutes in medical ethics is a piece of cake, especially when it is not quite clear how anything done with the undiluted welfare of the individual patient in mind can be entirely unethical. I mean, why are we obliged to consider the impact of our decisions upon the fate of the planets (or whatever) when THIS patient needs help? In fact, at least one medical ethicist has gone so far as to state that it is not unethical for a doctor to prescribe a placebo treatment, so long as the doctor believes it will benefit the patient. I don’t quite agree with that bald statement — there should be a rider specifying that this may apply to *some* contexts where there is no obviously superior evidence-based method.

Here are some examples of the intellectual minefield we have to negotiate.

1. All the doctors I know would be prepared to call in the witch-doctor if it would help assuage the fears, or help in the management, of a seriously ill primitive tribesman. It seems we are prepared to pander to the superstitions of SOME cultures while despising any similar inclinations in our own.

2. I have previously asked this question which has to do with public policy in relation to safe “alternatives”. Take my word for it that every pharmacy in Europe displays “Homeopathie” (or language equivalents) in large letters outside. Would skeptics prefer those using such remedies for their minor and self-limiting complaints to be using NSAIDs or antibiotics or antidepressants instead, treatments that will often in such contexts themselves perform no better than placebo, but at substantially greater risks? Behind the usual healthfraud position there is both an exaggeration of the capacity of modern medicine and insufficient recognition of the harm that it can do. We definitely do not yet have entirely safe and 100% effective solutions to all of mankind’s ills, and certain imperfections of everyday medical practice can heighten the risks of the use of unnecessarily powerful pharmaceuticals. So what is the safest and most pragmatically realistic position here?

3. Following on from that — what is the evidence-based answer to non-specific tiredness and unhappiness? If people feel better for taking a multivitamin or an innocuous herb, why should we care? We keep on offering the public temporary answers to these things, prescribing (historically) amphetamines, cocaine, opiates, barbiturates and phenothiazines in massive quantities, only to take them away when problems such as addiction ensue. Is it right to then turn around and say, well you didn’t really need these things anyway, even denying them any relief that they may derive from “pretend medicines”. The science that matters will be argued out in other arenas.

That’s to give you some idea of the kind of thing that I am on about. You seem to think I am talking about doctors promoting CAM or placebo treatment as a matter of policy. I am not prepared to go that far, although I think I understand why some doctors might do that.

I agree that “medicine is about an infinite number of individual contexts and [there are] many examples where ethical absolutes do not apply or don’t seem to apply very well.” Nor did I really think that Dr. Moran was “talking about doctors promoting ‘CAM’ or placebo treatments as a matter of policy.” We disagree elsewhere, but he makes some interesting points.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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