I approach this week’s topic with a bit of trepidation, even though I’ve been meaning to discuss it ever since this blog started. Over the weekend, I decided I had put it off long enough.
Why, you might ask, would I approach this topic with trepidation? A reasonable question, and I will give what I hope to be a reasonable answer. For one thing, this topic forces me to drift to areas more political than I normally like and is likely to provoke some angry reactions. More importantly, though, I’m about to discuss a medical organization that is steeped in an utterly toxic brew of bad science and extreme ideology. So what? you might ask. Well, there are some fairly prominent physicians that belong to this organization, including Ron Paul, among others, and you never know who in my own place of employment or referral base might also belong. For all I know, one of my bosses might belong. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case (or if it is they just don’t know about the organization’s extreme views), but you never know, and what I’m about to write is going to be harsh indeed because articles from the journal published by this organization are often cited by cranks and pseudoscientists. Sometimes they even make their way into the mainstream press as though they were legitimate scientific studies. Make no mistake, though, when it comes to medical science, this organization deserves every harsh word that I am about to write because it is a major booster of antivaccinationism, HIV/AIDS denialism, and the now discredited hypothesis that abortion causes breast cancer, while on its pages it regularly attacks the very concept of evidence-based medicine and peer-review. That it is an organization of physicians is all the more appalling.
The group to which I refer is the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), and its journal is the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (abbreviated JPANDS, because “JAPS” has some rather obvious negative connotations). It is not an exaggeration to say that the AAPS, through its journal JPANDS, is waging a war on science- and evidence-based medicine in the name of its politics.
The “Safety of Naturopathic Treatment”
In their nationwide effort to convince lawmakers to pronounce them primary care physicians, “educated” naturopaths have repeatedly claimed that their “natural” treatments are “safer and gentler” than those offered by medical doctors. The Alliance Legislative Workbook, a website that for several years provided strategies and “talking points” for ND-activists seeking state licensure, made this assertion in 2001:
Malpractice insurance rates [for licensed NDs] are generally less than $4000.00 per year, indicating the safety of naturopathic treatment as assessed by insurance companies. Master Insurance Trust reports that of the naturopathic physicians for whom MIT provides liability insurance, there have been only four incidents reported to the company for follow-up. However, nothing has been paid in either settlements or judgements on any of these items. “While this pooling of physicians is much too small to base actuarial considerations, this claims experience is clearly superior.” (Jeffrey D. Brunken, Program Manager, MIT, Letter dated May 21, 1990.)
Jury Verdicts Northwest, a legal database which records court cases in Washington and Oregon, the area of the country with the largest number of naturopathic physicians, shows no judgments for malpractice against N.D.s since the database was started in 1983. One in five M.D.s is sued each year in the US (AMA).
Why is malpractice so much lower among naturopathic physicians?
Naturopathic methods are less likely to cause injury than orthodox methods. Prudent dietary and lifestyle changes, for instance, are unlikely to cause harm. Naturopathic physicians by philosophy and training use the least invasive means to treat and prevent disease. This results in less injury to patients. Naturopathic physicians also have excellent diagnostic and referral skills. There is no significant history of complaints against naturopathic physicians resulting from a missed diagnoses, the most common cause for suits in a general practice. From insurance data, it appears that naturopathic physicians as a group know the limits of their methods and refer patients to other practitioners or specialists when appropriate.
One of the criticisms of modern medicine is that doctors prescribe too many pills. That’s true. Patients and doctors sometimes get caught up in a mutual misunderstanding. The patient assumes that he needs a prescription, and the doctor assumes that the patient wants a prescription. But sometimes patients don’t either need or want a prescription.
I’ll use myself as an illustration. I get occasional episodes of funny, blurry spots in my visual field that gradually expand to a sparkling zigzag pattern and go away after 20 minutes. They are typical scintillating scotomas, the aura that precedes some migraines. I am lucky because I never get the headache. My doctor said we could try to prevent my symptoms with the same medications we use to prevent migraine, but there was no need to treat them from a medical standpoint. Nothing bad would happen if we didn’t treat. I told her I didn’t want them treated. They are a minor annoyance; I can carry on with my normal activities, even reading, throughout the episodes, and I have no desire to take pills with potential side effects and with the cost and the hassle of remembering when to take them.
If it had been a typical patient and a typical doctor, the sequence of events might have been very different. The patient might have been more frightened by the strange phenomenon than I was. (I thought the weird tricks my brain could play on me were fascinating and fun to watch, not scary.) The patient might have desperately wanted those threatening symptoms to go away without understanding how insignificant and non-threatening they really were. The doctor might have assumed the patient wanted them to go away. The pills might have been offered and accepted with little thought. (more…)
Several people have been sending me either links to this paper or even the paper itself:
Young HA, Geier DA, Geier MR. (2008). Thimerosal exposure in infants and neurodevelopmental disorders: An assessment of computerized medical records in the Vaccine Safety Datalink. J Neurol Sci. 2008 May 14 [Epub ahead of print]. (Full text here.)
A few have asked me whether I was planning on deconstructing this study, given that antivaccinationists have apparently been promoting it as “evidence” that it really, truly, and honestly was the mercury in vaccines after all that caused autism. In actuality, I really didn’t feel the need to bother to do a full deconstruction because a new blogger called EpiWonk did a three part take-down that eviscerated this latest bit of “science” from Geier père et fils so thoroughly and with a much greater knowledge of epidemiology than I could ever muster, that I saw no need. Add to that a four-part takedown on the Pathophilia blog, and there was really no need for me to write a detailed deconstruction of my own. Unfortunately, since this study appears to be rearing its ugly head again and again in the blogosphere, I think it’s worth directing you to these discussions. I had been meaning to to this anyway, but had gotten side-tracked by numerous other topics. To make up for my lapse, here we go:
- New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: I. Scientific Fraud or Just Playing with Data?
- New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: II. What Happened to Control for Confounding?
- New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: III. Group-Level Units of Analysis and the Ecological Fallacy
Meanwhile, the Pathophilia blog also has a multi-part deconstruction of the latest Geier study from a different viewpoint:
- IRB Approval of Geier Autism Study: Yes or No?
- I’ve Been Sucked Into the Thimerosal-Autism-Geier Vortex
- Young-Geier Autism Study: What the—? (Part 1)
- Young-Geier Autism Study: What the—? (Part 2)
- Young-Geier Autism Study: What the—? (Part 3)
- Young-Geier Autism Study: What the—? (Part 4)
Ow! That’s gonna leave a mark!
Enjoy! And the next time an antivaccinationist points to this particular study, send ‘em over to see EpiWonk and Pathophilia.
A couple of months ago, one of my esteemed co-bloggers, Wally Sampson, wrote an excellent article about borderlines in research in conventional medicine. Such borderlines are particularly common in my area of expertise (cancer, which is also Dr. Sampson’s area of expertise) because there are so many cancers for which we do not as yet have reliably curative therapies. Patients faced with unresectable pancreatic cancer (as, for example, Patrick Swayze and the President of the American Medical Association have been diagnosed with) or metastatic solid cancers against which medicine generally has mostly palliative treatments, it is very tempting to take a “what have we got to lose?” attitude and pursue increasingly aggressive therapies that may actually shorten what little life a patient has left, all too often making that little bit of life more miserable than it had to be. As Dr. Sampson described in great detail, this sort of push to the borderlines and beyond led to the widespread acceptance during the 1990s of bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for advanced or inflammatory breast cancer based on uncontrolled studies that suggested a benefit. Later studies demonstrated no survival benefit (and possibly even a detriment), and that, or so it would seem, was that.
Except it wasn’t. Indeed, the other point that Dr. Sampson made was how the press covers these sorts of issues. He discussed a story that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about a young woman with advanced breast cancer who underwent stem cell transplantation for stage IV breast cancer at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and was embroiled in a fight with Kaiser Permanente, her insurer, which refused to cover the treatment because it was deemed experimental and was at the time covering the cost of radiation therapy but refusing to cover the costs of extra followup scans required by the M.D. Anderson protocol. The article, not surprisingly, covered the story from the angle of the brave young cancer victim being further victimized by a greedy insurance company. And Evanthia Pappas is no doubt brave, and no one could read about her plight without rooting for her to beat the odds. The problem is that no consideration was given to just how unlikely this incredibly expensive treatment was to benefit her and whether it was even ethical to be doing such a study in which the patient bore over $200,000 of the cost for a treatment that was indeed experimental and being studied in an uncontrolled clinical trial. There are some very thorny medical, ethical, and financial issues there indeed.
Perhaps the reason Dr. Sampson’s post resonated with me was because it reminded me of a story that was extensively discussed last year, so much so that I saved the link to it. The story (Cancer Patients, Lost in a Maze of Uneven Care) appeared on the front page of the New York Times last summer. The article in question starts out by telling a truly sad story about a 35 year-old woman who, after giving birth, was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer as the human interest “hook” with which to represent what is described as a systemic problem with cancer care in this country:
It’s been decades since the onslaught of organized quackery began against science and reason. Although most physicians are still capable of reasoning, the percentage of medical graduates whose brains have been cleansed of that ability seems to have increased. Either the brains have been cleansed or they have learned to coexist with unreason and to use both functions simultaneously. The latter is quite an accomplishment and is a testament to the flexibility and fluidity of the human mind (shorthand for brain function.) Psychologists have names for that function such as compartmentalization, rationalization, denial, heuristic maintenance, and cognitive dissonance.
Physician advocates of quackery are particularly unsettling because they seem to be so rational at times and appear so to the press and the public. Even more unsettling to me are the medical school department heads and deans and others who loosen the restrictions on the irrational so that peaceful coexistence and polite tolerance seem to be the preferred mode of mental existence in faculties. The NCCAM’s example needs no introduction.
Thus the matter-of-fact tone in which was reported an article in this week’s JAMA. As reported in our local papers, the headlines read: “St. John’s Wort fails to help kids with ADHD [Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder] in study.” That stopped me for more than one reason. First, any headline about a sectarian or implausible claim is a stopper. But second, StJW for ADHD? I’d never seen the claim. But the article explained that the author felt such a trial was worth doing because someone else had found that StJW increased the level of nor-epinephrine-like compounds in rat brains, so that perhaps St JW would work instead of stimulants for hyperactivity.
Recently I have been generally critical of how mainstream media deals with scientific topics. Science is often complex and requires hard work and diligence on the part of a journalist to get the story right. In recent years mainstream news outlets have been downsizing or eliminating their science journalists and tasking general reporters and editors to handle science stories.
Meanwhile, as science progresses it grows more complex and challenging to distill for a lay audience. At the same time there are growing pseudoscientific institutions and social forces making it even more difficult to sort out the reliable from the nonsense. This is especially true, in my opinion, when it comes to medical reporting of controversial treatments and claims.
I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s some times taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, “you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he’s kind of nutty.First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.
At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure…also the processes.
The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the color.
It adds a question – does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are…why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.
It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
Taken from Richard Feynman: What Do You Care What Other People Think?
Dr. Geeta Shroff is an Indian physician who is running a New Delhi clinic offering embryonic stem cell therapies for a large number of various medical conditions. The only thing these medical conditions have in common is that they are incurable. Indian law allows for the use of unproven treatments for terminal or incurable diseases. I cannot know Dr. Shroff’s intentions, but she has rejected the ethics and standards of science-based medicine and in so doing has transformed herself into a dangerous charlatan.
Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy
Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC) are controversial because of the ethical and moral consideration regarding harvesting ESC and the rights of an embryo. But that is not what makes Dr. Shroff’s treatments controversial, and not what I am going to write about here. The question, rather, is the state of the science of ESC therapy.
ESC’s are scientifically interesting because they have the potential to turn into any type of cell in the body. The hope for ESC therapy is that they can be used to replace dead or abnormal tissue in the body, something which is not now possible for many conditions. (Organ and bone marrow transplants are among the current treatments to replace failing tissue.) For example, an injured spinal cord might be repaired by using ESC’s to replace the damaged motor neurons and reestablish a connection between the brain and muscles. Atrophied muscles themselves can be repaired by having ESC’s turn into working muscle cells.
Sometimes diagnosis is straightforward. If a woman has missed several periods and has a big belly with a fetal heartbeat, it’s pretty easy to diagnose pregnancy. But most of the time diagnosis is much more difficult. Alzheimer’s can’t be diagnosed for sure until the patient dies and you do an autopsy. If only we had one of those Star Trek gadgets to point at our patients and give us a quick and accurate answer! Alas! We are far from perfect. All too often, we really have no idea what’s causing a patient’s symptoms. We do a complete workup and still don’t know. What then?
We all know people who have symptoms that a series of doctors have failed to diagnose, who continue to doctor-shop, hoping to find that one doctor somewhere who will find something the others have missed. Occasionally they do; but far more often these people spend a great deal of time and money chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. Sometimes as they are searching, the illness gradually runs its course and goes away. When this happens, whatever they tried last gets the undeserved credit for the “cure.” Sometimes the symptoms persist and these searches consume their life, encourage unhealthy self-absorption, and permanently ensconce them in the “sick” role.
One of the attractions of alternative medicine is that it offers far more certainty than scientific medicine. If your scientific doctor can’t see anything on x-rays, your chiropractor can. He’ll tell you he knows exactly what’s wrong: a subluxation that he can fix. Sherry Rogers will tell you all illness is due to toxins accumulating in your cells and you must “detoxify or die.” Hulda Clark will tell you it’s all parasites that she can eliminate with her magic zapper. Robert Young says the cause of all disease is acidosis. They all have confident, precise answers. Wrong ones.
The One Cause of All Disease?
It’s really easy to figure out what’s causing a patient’s symptoms if you believe there is one simple cause for all disease. While I was writing this I got sidetracked and searched the Internet for “the one cause of all disease.” I found a lot of them, including: (more…)