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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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Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer!

Before I start into the meat of this post, I feel the need to emphasize, as strongly as I can, four things:

  1. I do not receive any funding from the telecommunications industry in general, or wireless phone companies in particular. None at all. In other words, I’m not in the pocket of “big mobile” any more than I am in the pocket of big pharma.
  2. I don’t own any stock in telecommunications companies, other than as parts of mutual funds in which my retirement funds are invested that purchase shares in many, many different companies, some of which may or may not be telecommunications companies. (I should probably go and look at the list.)
  3. None of my friends or family work for cell phone companies.
  4. I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I really don’t.

I say this because these are the most common accusations I hear whenever I venture into this particular topic area, and I thought I’d just clear that up right away in order (hopefully) to preempt any similar comments after this post. Indeed, one of the favorite retorts to anyone who criticizes fearmongering about cell phones is to try to insinuate that that person is only doing so because he or she is in the pocket of industry, and I’ve been at the receiving end of such claims. Unfortunately, I’m sure someone will probably show his or her lack of reading comprehension and post one of those very criticisms of me. It’s almost inevitable. Even though posting such disclaimers never works against the “pharma shill” gambit when I write about vaccines or dubious cancer cures, nonetheless hope springs eternal.

Now that that obligatory unpleasantness is out of the way, let me move on to say that I’m very puzzled about something that happened last week.

I know that being puzzled isn’t particularly unusual for me. Indeed, I’m frequently puzzled about a great many things. I can’t figure out how, for example, anyone with the slightest bit of reason or critical thinking ability can believe that homeopathy is anything other than water treated with, in essence, magical spells accompanied by shaking or do anything other than laugh when informed what homeopathy really is and how it supposedly “works.” I can’t figure out how anyone can look at the mass of interlocking evidence from multiple different scientific specialties supporting evolution and reject still reject one of the most powerful scientific theories ever to spring from the human mind, deciding instead that creationism or its bastard offspring, “intelligent design” creationism is anything more than pure religion or rank religion-inspired pseudoscience. I can’t figure out why American Idol or Survivor is so amazingly popular.

And I can’t figure out why on earth the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center released this warning about cell phones last week:

PITTSBURGH July 24, 2008, 07:13 am ET · The head of a prominent cancer research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff Wednesday: Limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.

The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that don’t find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children.

“Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later,” Herberman said.

Dr. Herberman is a highly respected cancer center director whom I’ve in general thought well of, and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute is a highly respected cancer center. I know a few people there, and in the past I’ve worked closely with two surgeons who trained there. One in particular remains my collaborator, even though I’ve moved on from the institution where we were once partners.

That’s why I can’t help but wonder just what on earth Dr. Herberman was smoking when he decided to issue this warning, given my general respect for the University of Pittsburgh to the point where I once even tried to land a faculty position there. His announcement strikes me as being rash in the extreme, especially given that its text even admits outright that the published data at present do not appear to support a link between cell phone use and brain tumors. Consequently, I conclude that this is alarmism that, I suspect, even a prominent blogger known to be somewhat receptive to the claim that cell phones cause brain tumors (Revere) would have a hard time supporting, because it goes far beyond the published evidence and is based on “early unpublished data.” Scaring the nation based on “early unpublished data” that can’t be examined by the entire medical and scientific community is generally not a good idea. That’s why I’ve been asking over the last few days: Why on earth did Dr. Herberman do it?
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 3: Implausible Claims and Formal Ethics Statements

The Ethics of Implausible Medical Claims (IMC)

In Part 2 of this series* we learned from David Katz, MD, a key member of the Yale School of Medicine’s “integrative medicine” program, that he had been “pushed toward integrative medicine by the needs of [his] patients.” We also learned that Dr. Katz’s rationale for this decision justifies a wide range of quackery—both in principle and in fact. I had previously alluded to arguments like those of Dr. Katz in a comment on SBM several months ago:

…we must be true to medical ethics, no matter what else we do. If that means losing a few patients, so be it. Patients are free agents, and we can only do so much to influence them. To the extent that we don’t do that as well as we might (which is obviously true in some cases), we might do better. But our ethical obligation is to science and truth; it is not, as many modern physicians would have it and as much as we may lament sometimes losing patients to woo, to seducing patients to stick with us no matter what, if the “what” includes engaging in a charade about “integration” or “complementary therapies”…

Realizing that some might argue that physicians’ obligations to patients ought to trump their obligations to “science and truth,” I later revised that statement:

Several weeks ago I argued here that a physician’s primary ethical obligation is to science and truth. In retrospect I probably should have put it a slightly different way: a physician’s primary ethical obligation is the same as everyone else’s. It is to honesty and integrity. For physicians, however, that means being true to real medical knowledge, among other things, and real medical knowledge comes from science.

In spite of that revision, two readers whose opinions I respect challenged my assertion. Dr. Peter Moran’s worthy efforts to educate patients about the realities of “alternative” cancer treatments are considerable. Here on SBM he has repeatedly challenged us to explain how, when confronted with testimonials of “alternative” cures, we ought to respond without using “a high-handed, ‘we know best’ stance” and thus “appear to want to distance [ourselves] from the intimate concerns of [our] patients.” I was thinking mainly of him when I wrote the revision above, because on this key topic—how to respond ethically, but with compassion, to patients who want to believe in implausible treatments—I’ve come to think of Dr. Moran as the “conscience” of Science-Based Medicine. Those with cancer, he has reminded us, “are folk very like you and me who are simply grasping at any straw that might save or prolong their lives.” His take on why IMCs are appealing to those with less ominous problems is well-developed and agrees with my own, mostly. We part ways, however, when he concludes (also here and here) that ethical physicians might have good reasons—unlike Dr. Katz’s—to entertain benign, if implausible treatments:

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

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Can Psychosis be Prevented?

I recently read an article in Discover magazine entitled “Stop the Madness.” It was about a new treatment program that allegedly can prevent schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. I found it very disturbing.

The PIER (Portland Identification and Early Referral) program was founded by a psychiatrist, Dr. William McFarlane, in Portland, Maine. It has recently expanded to 4 other US sites and there are similar programs in several other countries. PIER is an effort to find and treat patients in the “early stages of deterioration towards psychosis,” so as to prevent the development of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. The program involves various psychosocial interventions and psychotropic drugs.

On the surface it sounds promising, but there is a dark side. I’m particularly concerned about the use of antipsychotic drugs in people who haven’t been diagnosed as psychotic. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Resistance is futile? Hell, no! (A call to arms)

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

Gonna stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down

From “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, 1989

This week, in a little bit of a departure, I have a minor bone to pick with our fearless leader and his podcast partner in crime Rebecca Watson (a.k.a. the Skepchick), who both managed to annoy me a bit the other day. (Don’t worry, Steve and Rebecca, I still love you guys…)

I’ll explain. You see, I had originally had a much different topic in mind for this week. Indeed, I even had my post mostly written by Saturday morning, when I had to take care of some mundane personal business, namely getting an oil change and some minor work done on my car. Since I need my car to commute to work and the maintenance needed was relatively minor, I decided to wait for the work to be done. As is my wont when sitting in waiting rooms with nothing much else to do, I decided to plug my earphones into my iPhone and catch up on some podcasts. Since the dealer also had free wifi, I brought my laptop along as well, the better to finish up my originally intended post.

The first thing I realized as I perused the list of unlistened-to podcasts was that I had fallen far behind in listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. To begin catching up, I decided to start with what was at the time the most recently available episode, specifically the July 9 podcast, figuring I could work my way back to through the earlier ones and thereby catch up with at least two episodes before my car was ready. In the second segment (beginning around 14:31 minutes into the podcast), Steve Novella and crew discussed a bit the recent news that the National Institute of Mental Health was trying to resurrect a dubious and highly unethical clinical trial proposed to test chelation therapy as a treatment for autism, referencing his excellent post on this very blog about why the trial is scientifically dubious (at best) and totally unethical. So far, so good.

Then the conversation veered into another area that I agree with, namely the utter uselessness of National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and how its main purpose is more proselytization for “alternative” and “complementary” medicine than actual rigorous scientific research, as I pointed out before in one of my earliest posts for SBM. As Steve pointed out that, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by NCCAM, not a single new medicine or treatment has been added to the armamentarium of modern medicine, nor, even more importantly, have CAM practitioners abandoned a single bit of unscientific medicine due to any of the negative studies. Indeed, their enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened in the least. This line of discussion led to the question of whether we, as skeptics and advocates of science- and evidence-based medicine need to rethink and refocus our efforts.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 2: the Tortured Logic of David Katz

In Part 1 of this series* I asserted that a physician’s primary ethical responsibility is to honesty and integrity, which in turn must be largely based on science and reason (I apologize if that sounded preachy; if there had been more time I might have couched it in more congenial terms). I mentioned the fallacious reasoning whereby proponents of implausible medical claims (IMC) point to real and imagined weaknesses of modern medicine to justify their own agenda. I offered, as a favorite example of such proponents, science-based medicine’s having not yet solved every health problem. This week I’ll show how this version of the tu quoque fallacy has led a prestigious medical school to advocate pseudoscience-based medicine.

Modern Medicine: a Brief, Fragile Commitment to Science

First, a few more words about the title of this series. Modern medicine is not science, even if it draws upon science for its knowledge: it is an applied science similar, in that sense, to engineering. Modern medicine is also not synonymous with the “medical profession,” if the term means the collection of all people with MD degrees. That is true for the obvious reason that medicine is more than people, but also because a small but loud minority of MDs rejects modern medicine and science.

Modern medicine has made an uneven commitment to science and reason. At its best, it has formally embraced them in the faculties and curricula of medical schools, in its codes of ethics, and in its contributions to knowledge, both basic and applied, over the past 150 years or so. As discussed last week, it is because of science and reason that modern medicine has made dramatic, revolutionary advances in a very short time. That is what distinguishes it from every other “healing tradition,” and why there is no legitimate competition. The only valid medicine in the modern world is science-based medicine—not “allopathic,” “Western,” “conventional,” “regular,” “integrative,” “complementary and alternative,” or any of the so-called “whole medical systems.” The pre-scientific (and, ironically, “post-modern”) designation of “schools” or “systems” of medicine, so stridently trumpeted by quacks, is an anachronism—even if it persists in archaic, governmental edicts.

Compared to the actual sciences, however, modern medicine’s commitment to science is fragile. Its recent confusion of error-prone clinical trials with science itself—the project called “evidence-based medicine”—has been a mixed blessing. Its growing tolerance of charlatans and crackpots, at times elevating them to celebrity status, would be unthinkable in physics or biology. Its dalliances with quackery, so depressingly recounted in recent posts here, here, here, and here, are why your SBM bloggers do what we do. Biologists, other scientists, and intellectuals in general have joined the battle against the pseudoscientific travesty known as “intelligent design.” Many physicians, however, even of the brainy, academic variety, act as though the equally pseudoscientific but more dangerous travesty known as “integrative medicine” is either a good thing or, at least, is a necessary addition to medical school curricula.

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