Much to the relief of regular readers, I will now change topics from those of the last two weeks. Although fun and amusing (except to those who fall for them), continuing with such material for too long risks sending this blog too far in a direction that no one would want. So, instead, this week it’s time to get serious again.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about factors that lead to the premature adoption of surgical technologies and procedures or the “bandwagon” or “fad” effect among surgeons. By “premature,” I am referring to widespread adoption “in the trenches,” so to speak, of a procedure before good quality evidence from science and clinical trials show it to be superior in some way to previously used procedures, either in terms of efficacy, cost, time to recover, or other measurable parameters. As I pointed out before, laparoscopic cholecystectomy definitely fell into that category. The popularity of the procedure spread like wildfire in the early 1990s before there was any good quality data supporting its superiority to the “old-fashioned” gold standard procedure of open cholecystectomy. Another example, although not nearly as dramatic because the number of patients for whom the procedure would be appropriate is much smaller, is transanal endoscopic microsurgery. However, the difficulties in practicing science- and evidence-based medicine don’t just include fads and bandwagon effects. The example of laparoscopic cholecystectomy notwithstanding (which was largely driven by marketing and patient demand), surgical culture is deeply conservative in that it can be very reluctant to change practice even there is very strong evidence saying that they should.
“Death begins in the colon.“
Perhaps you’ve heard this little bit of “alternative medicine” wisdom. Oddly enough, I had never heard it until well after I had become a surgeon (although my first thought upon hearing it was that it would make a killer name for a rock band or a blog). That’s when I began encountering claims that seemed to indicate that constipation was the most evil thing in the world, something that must be avoided at all costs. Naturally, I wondered just what the heck was meant by this bit of “wisdom.” What, I wondered, was it based on? What, I wondered, was the purpose of it? To answer this question, recently I decided to go back and review what people say about colon health:
Have you ever considered this simple question: Are you clean inside?
In science- and evidence-based medicine, the evaluation of surgical procedures represents a unique challenge that is truly qualitatively different from the challenges in medical specialties. Perhaps the most daunting of these challenges is that it is often either ethically unacceptable or logistically impossible to do the gold-standard clinical trial, a double-blind, randomized placebo trial for an operation. After all, the “placebo” in a surgical trial involves patients to anaesthesia, making an incision or incisions like the ones used for the operation under study, and then not doing the operation. Clearly, even leaving the ethics aside, it’s impossible to blind the surgeons and operative team involved to which treatment, real surgery or placebo, the patient is receiving without having a different surgeon do the surgery from the one overseeing the postoperative care of the patient, with the operative surgeon barred from communicating to the postoperative surgeon what happened in the operating room and from participating in the postoperative care of the patient upon whom he operated. This sort of restriction, besides being also highly dubious ethically speaking, goes against the grain of surgical culture, in which a surgeon is expected to provide the postoperative care for his patients almost as a matter of surgical honor. A final problem that complicates any surgical trial is that surgeons of differing technical operating skill will necessarily be involved, and surgical skill is indeed very important in determining outcome. Although there have been examples of double-blinded trials with sham surgery as placebo, for example, in injecting dopamine-producing cells into the brain to treat Parkinson’s disease, difficulties doing such studies tend to force us as surgeons in many cases either to rely on retrospective data, prospective non-randomized data, or, when we’re lucky, a prospective randomized (but not double-blinded) trial of one surgical procedure versus another.
There it was on Friday greeting me on the ABC News website: “Study: Acupuncture May Boost Pregnancy” in bold blue letters, with the title of the webpage being “Needles Help You Become Pregnant.” The story began:
It sounds far-fetched sticking needles in women to help them become pregnant but a scientific review suggests that acupuncture might improve the odds of conceiving if done right before or after embryos are placed in the womb.
The surprising finding is far from proven, and there are only theories for how and why acupuncture might work. However, some fertility specialists say they are hopeful that this relatively inexpensive and simple treatment might ultimately prove to be a useful add-on to traditional methods.
By the end of the day, the story was all over the media, including radio, TV, news websites, the blogosphere, and various other outlets, all trumpeting the message that a scientific study says that acupuncture can help infertile couples conceive. Nary a skeptical word seemed to be found. Knowing very well just how far parents will go to conceive, I was curious: Did this study actually say what the media says it said? What was so new and radical about this study that it rated a press release and a lot of promotion? Do we here at SBM (particularly Steve) need to rethink our extreme skepticism about acupuncture, given the poor quality evidence and lack of even a glimmer of a convincing physiologic mechanism to explain its supposed activities?
The name of this blog is Science-Based Medicine. The reason it is so called is because we, the bloggers who will be contributing, believe that “the best method for determining which interventions and health products are safe and effective is, without question, good science.” Sadly, one of the people who best represented this very sort of philosophy, Dr. Judah Folkman (1933-2008), has died. Dr. Folkman was the epitome of everything that a science-based surgeon or physician should be, and he was first among my scientific and surgical heroes.
No doubt you’ve come across them before, either on the Internet, printed advertisements, or radio and TV ads: Alternative medicine cancer “testimonials.” They are the primary means by which “alternative” therapies for cancer (or just about any other disease) are promoted and the primary “evidence” that is used to “prove” the efficacy of non-evidence-based therapies. There’s no doubt that they sure can sound convincing. Typically, what you will see or hear is a chipper-looking and -sounding person who claims that this treatment “cured” his or her cancer. These testimonials almost always include many or all of these elements: First, the cancer patient receives the diagnosis, after which she is lost and suffering at the hands of “conventional” doctors, who either cannot or do not wish to understand and who cannot do anything for her. Often, this will take the form of the classic alt-med cliche that the patient was “sent home to die.” Then, when all hope seems lost, the patient discovers an alternative medicine “healer” or treatment. It is not infrequently described in quasireligious terms, like a revelation or something that brings the patient out of the darkness and into the light. Naturally, there is resistance from the patient’s doctors, family, and/or friends, who warn against it, with doctors warning of dire consequences if the patient abandons conventional medicine. But the patient, convinced by dubious practitioners, friends, and, of course, previous testimonials, “sees” that the treatment “works” in a way that medical science cannot and survives. Infused with fervor, the patient now wants to spread the word. Often, the patient is now selling the remedy. Perhaps you’ve seen such testimonials or heard them on the radio and thought: “Gee, this sounds great. I wonder if it works.”
The answer is: Almost certainly not.