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Senator Tom Harkin: “Disappointed” that NCCAM hasn’t “validated” more CAM

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) owes me a new irony meter.

I’ll explain in a minute, but first you have to know why I even care about what Harkin says or does, given that he’s not my Senator. As you may recall, arguably no single legislator in the U.S. has done more to harm to the cause of promoting science- and evidence-based medicine than Tom Harkin. That’s because it was primarily through Harkin’s efforts that the National Institutes of Health, despite the fact that its scientists were not agitating for it, had the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) rammed down its throat in 1992, first as the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), then in 1998, when NIH Director Harold Varmus tried to place OAM under more scientific NIH control, by elevating OAM to a full and independent Center within the NIH. Thus was NCCAM born.

I’ve complained many times about how NCCAM funds studies that, let’s face it, are of pseudoscience and quackery (homeopathy, anyone?) and even more about how it promotes unscientific medical practices. I’ve argued time and time again that there is no research that is funded by NCCAM that couldn’t be dealt with as well or better by other Centers or Institutes within the NIH. I’ve even argued that NCCAM should be defunded and dismantled, allowing CAM grant applications to be evaluated by the most appropriate center, as has our fearless leader Steve Novella. Most vociferous of all has been my fellow SBM blogger Kimball Atwood, who has made similar arguments at even greater length. I’ve also pointed out Harkin and other CAM-friendly legislators created and managed to increase the funding of NCCAM to the tune of $120+ million a year not for the purpose of rigorous scientific evaluation of CAM practices, but rather to promote CAM and ultimately “integrate” it with scientific medicine. At this they have been enormously successful.

Let me clarify. What I meant is that NCCAM, along with the Bravewell Collaborative, has been very successful in popularizing CAM in medical academia; at “proving” that CAM works, not so much. Evidence that this is so comes from a recent observation that Senator Tom Harkin is very, very unhappy with NCCAM these days and has publicly said so recently, as pointed out by Lindsay Beyerstein, daughter of the late, great skeptical psychologist Barry Beyerstein. On Thursday, Harkin told a Senate panel, Integrative Care: A Pathway to a Healthier Nation, that he was disappointed that NCCAM had disproven too many alternative therapies. (His remarks begin about 17 minutes into the video on the webpage to which I linked.) In addition, Harkin’s statements have also been posted to his Senate blog:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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CAM on campus: Homeopathy

I am quite proud of my medical school. The dedicated faculty and dynamic curriculum produce graduates of excellent clinical skill with a strong sense of service. Initially I was too focused on coursework to pay much mind to the student-run interest group in “cross-cultural and integrative medicine” and the occasional extracurricular CAM event. More recently, however, I noticed that such events had become a highly-publicized, monthly occurrence. It was still very much outside the official curriculum, but the discussion was one-sided with no public debate.

In addition to the student group on my local campus, we have a “CAM institute” that boosts CAM across the wider university. The CAM institute is a major sponsor of events organized by the student group in addition to producing its own lecture series and publications. The events hosted by either group are of two types. The first kind is an activity for med students that essentially functions as stress management: a yoga instructor leads free sessions between lectures once a week, and free herbal tea or massages are offered during final exam week. Who can complain about that? The massages are quite popular.The second kind of event is a lecture or workshop on a particular CAM modality.

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Posted in: Homeopathy

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Another new blogger for SBM

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve found another blogger for SBM, someone who will represent a viewpoint that I think is very important: That of the physician-in-training. So please welcome Tim Kreider to the stable. Tim is an MD/PhD student at a public university in the northeast US. He never paid much mind to pseudoscience until discovering The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and other podcasts that now keep him company during long nights in lab. He practices his skeptical analysis on extracurricular lectures organized by a student interest group for integrative medicine on campus.

As a graduate student, Tim is investigating immune mechanisms in a mouse model of gastrointestinal helminth infection. As a medical student, he has no idea what specialty to pursue and would love advice. He loves to teach math and science and hopes to pursue a career in medical academia.

We’re very happy to have Tim on board. Given that one of my concerns is the infiltration of pseudoscience into the medical school curriculum, I consider it essential to have a medical student on board to give that perspective. Because of his academic load, Tim will be blogging only once a month, although I do hope to tease a little more out of him, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize his education.

Posted in: Announcements

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A Medical-Skeptical Classic

The medical literature slowly becomes outdated. As a result there are not that many ‘classics’ in the field, since their content becomes less relevant. The medical aphorism is that 10 years after graduation from medical school, half of everything you learned will no longer be valid. The problem for medical students is trying to figure out which half of their curriculum is not worth learning.

Old studies become increasingly irrelevant as diagnosis and treatment changes over time under the relentless pressure of medicine. I once came across the best of Osler, with his descriptions of typhoid fever and pneumococcal pneumonia. The essays were far more literary in style than today’s journal articles, describing the presentation of these diseases in Dickens-like detail, but of little practical help given the advances in treatment and the understanding of the microbiology of diseases.

Technology also expands and limits what papers are available. If there is not an electronic form of an article, it might as well not exist. Many classic articles are not yet available in digital form, and the article in question for this post I had to get as a scanned version of the original paper, rather than a pdf. As a result of time and lack of electronic access, much of the older medical literature is not easily accessible, and journal publishers are not particularly interested in the free dissemination of information. Which is a shame. There is the occasional older reference that is as applicable today as when it was published. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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How To Get Physicians To Use The Same Science-Based Playbook

Pretty much everyone agrees that we need to improve the quality of healthcare delivered to patients in the US. We’ve all heard the frightening statistics from the Institute of Medicine about medical error rates – that as many as 98,000 patients die each year as a result of them – and we also know that the US spends about 33% more than most industrialized country on healthcare, without substantial improvements in outcomes.

However, a large number of quality improvement initiatives rely on additional rules, regulations, and penalties to inspire change (for example, decreasing Medicare payments to hospitals with higher readmission rates, and decreasing provider compensation based on quality indicators). Not only am I skeptical about this stick vs. carrot strategy, but I think it will further demoralize providers, pit key stakeholders against one another, and cause people to spend their energy figuring out how to game the system than do the right thing for patients.

There is a carrot approach that could theoretically result in a $757 billion savings/year that has not been fully explored – and I suggest that we take a look at it before we “release the hounds” on hospitals and providers in an attempt to improve healthcare quality.

I attended the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on budget options for health care reform on February 25th. One of the potential areas of substantial cost savings identified by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is non evidence-based variations in practice patterns. In fact, at the recent Medicare Policy Summit, CBO staff identified this problem as one of the top three causes of rising healthcare costs. Just take a look at this map of variations of healthcare spending to get a feel for the local practice cultures that influence treatment choices and prices for those treatments. There seems to be no organizing principle at all.

Senator Baucus (Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) appeared genuinely distressed about this situation and was unclear about the best way to incentivize (or penalize) doctors to make their care decisions more uniformly evidence-based. In my opinion, a “top down” approach will likely be received with mistrust and disgruntlement on the part of physicians. What the Senator needs to know is that there is a bottom up approach already in place that could provide a real win-win here.
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Posted in: General, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Train Your Brain

I’m a big fan of video games, puzzles, and brain teasers. So the notion that so-called “brain training” games can help improve mental function and stave off dementia has some appeal to me. It also makes a certain amount of sense – exercise your brain and its function will improve.

And yet, as a skeptic, I have always been bothered by the specific claims made by marketers of games, websites, devices and programs. The formula is probably familiar to you, a specifically designed program is optimized to stimulate brain function, improve integration of information, and improve global function.

The website promotion for Brain Age, for example, claims:

Everyone knows you can prevent muscle loss with exercise, and use such activities to improve your body over time. And the same could be said for your brain. The design of Brain Age is based on the premise that cognitive exercise can improve blood flow to the brain. All it takes is as little as a few minutes of play time a day. For everyone who spends all their play time at the gym working out the major muscle groups, don’t forget – your brain is like a muscle, too. And it craves exercise.

The blood flow argument is pure hand-waving. The muscle analogy is perhaps more apt than intended – do muscles respond to a specific exercise or to any exercise?

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Healing But Not Curing

Last week I discussed the book Healing, Hype, or Harm? edited by Edzard Ernst. I was particularly struck by one of the essays in that book: “Healing but not Curing” by Bruce Charlton, MD, a reader in evolutionary psychiatry at the Department of Psychology of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Charlton proposes a new way of looking at CAM. He describes three common attitudes:

  •  CAM does good and should be integrated with orthodox medicine. 
  • CAM is worthless and should be discarded.
  •  CAM may or may not do good and this should be decided using science.

He rejects all three. In his view,

  •  Alternative therapies do good.
  •  From a strictly medical perspective they are worthless.
  •  They should not be integrated with orthodox medicine.
  •  Because they are explained non-scientifically, they cannot be evaluated using the criteria of medical science.

He suggests that alternative therapies be regarded as spiritual practices. They are about making people feel better (‘healing’) not about mending their dysfunctional brains and bodies (‘curing’). (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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2009: Shaping up to be a really bad year for antivaccinationists

I will begin this post with a bit of an explanation. Between one and two weeks ago, there appeared two momentous news about the manufactroversy regarding vaccines and autism. No doubt, many SBM readers were expecting that I, as the resident maven of this particular bit of pseudoscience, would have been here last week to give you, our readers, the skinny on all of this. Unfortunately, as some know, my wife’s mother died, coincidentally enough, on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday and a day when one of those two momentous bits of news was released to the public, which is why I used one of my handful of posts written and then held in reserve. I’m back now, though, and I don’t think it’s too late to comment on these bits of news because now that over a week has gone by what I’ve seen has led me to draw some conclusions that I might not have been able to do, had I done my usual bit and been first off the mark (at least among SBM bloggers) discussing the story.

2008: The Best of Years for the Antivaccine Movement

But first, let’s take a look at last year. In 2008, Jenny McCarthy was the new and fresh celebrity face of the movement that believes that autism and all manner of other neurodevelopmental disorders are caused by vaccines and that the government and big pharma are suppressing The Truth. She had emerged in the fall of 2007 after having tried to erase from the Internet her previous involvement in the “Indigo Child” movement in preparation for becoming an “autism advocate” who could write a book that could land her on Oprah’s show. Thanks to her and, perhaps even more so to the star power of her boyfriend Jim Carrey, who is just as wrong about vaccines and medicine as Jenny is, the antivaccine movement came roaring into prominence in a way that it had never managed to pull off before. After all, let’s face it, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year and a famous comedian are far more “interesting” public figures for various media outlets to interview than previous celebrities who spearheaded the vaccine manufactroversy, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. or Don Imus and his wife Deirdre.

Indeed, Jenny’s combination of good looks and utter obnoxiousness led to her showing up all over the media in 2008. For example, on April 1 (appropriately enough), she appeared on Larry King Live! and shouted down physicians who had the temerity to tell her that her Google University knowledge was just plain wrong. The pinnacle of her influence came during the summer, when, having now supplanted J.B. Handley as the public face of the antivaccine group Generation Rescue and transforming GR into “Jenny McCarthy’s autism charity,” she led the “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC. True, at most there were several hundred people there, but it got wide news attention, and Jenny was all over the news. She rapidly followed it up by releasing a second book Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds and appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show yet again.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Colorado is Nearer to Promoting Naturopathic Pseudomedicine—Aided by the Colorado Medical Society

This week we’ll take a break from lambasting the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, as worthy as that task is, in order to confront some of the latest events involving the pseudomedical cult that calls itself “naturopathic medicine.”* Intrepid nurse and anti-healthfraud activist Linda Rosa reports that Colorado is dangerously close to becoming the next state to endorse ”NDs” as health care practitioners, and Scott Gavura of Science-Based Pharmacy called my attention to a report that British Columbia is considering enlarging the scope of practice for NDs, who are already licensed there, and that Alberta is on the verge of licensing them. In each case, those whom the public trusts to make wise decisions have betrayed their ignorance of both pseudomedicine and the realities of governmental regulation.

To explain why, it will first be necessary to make a few assertions, which are linked to developed arguments where necessary:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Fakin’ it

Last week the Times of London revealed inside information from the General Medical Council (UK, responsible for physician licensing) of an ongoing investigation of Dr. Andrew Wakefield and from its own investigation. This revelation recalled other instances of fakery from reports of sectarian medicine (“CAM”) successes. The Medical Council information contained evidence that the data from the now famous Wakefield cases used to claim an association of the MMR vaccine with childhood autism and inflammatory bowel disease were misinterpreted, altered, and to some extent, faked. The report and history were reviewed by David Gorski last week. In eight of twelve cases, the dates of autism onset were “rearranged” to fit the needed time association, and many small bowel biopsies were “reinterpreted” to show inflammation.

The Wakefield claims were long suspected by reputable medical scientists and skeptics  as being erroneous or fraudulent.  Note: the Council hearings are still in progress, and the Times report is subject to legal complaint.  The original details can also be seen in the Times articles.

This expose’ adds to a growing list of reports with erroneous and faked information in medical journals used either for economic reward, undeserved fame, or to promote ideological claims for medical sects and cults. Although history of erroneous or false claims goes back hundreds of years, the altering or synthesizing of data passing the recently conceived peer review system is new,  illuminating defects in the journal peer review and editing system.

If journals were invented in the 18th century, and operated like journals of today, Mesmer’s demonstrations might have been published, and the Ben Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier and French Academy’s disproof might have been rejected. (Laughter here.) But journals continue to make major goofs in publishing implausible results despite the popularity of a famous specialty journal for that purpose.

Examples vary from acceptance of language manipulation – “alternative,” “healing,” “integrative,” etc., to the fakery of recent papers showing effects of prayer. The two famous studies of prayer in the cardiac care unit ranged from the unadmitted breaking of the blind in the Bird study (So Med J 1988; 81:826-826) to unadmitted imbalances of subject and control groups (Harris, Arch Int Med 1999;159:2273-2278.) And from those to the likely fakery of the distant prayer study of in vitro fertilization (Cha, Wirth, Lobo; J Reprod Med 2001:46;781-786) in which three separate prayer groups on two continents improved pregnancy rates in a group of women on a third continent by an implausible 100 percent. In all of these cases, the papers passed peer or editorial review despite the methodological defects that were picked up by us skeptics (K. Atwood, K.Courcey [an RN] B. Flamm, and others.)

Adding insult to the above, Annals of Internal Medicine published a systematic review of intercessory prayer (Astin et al, Ann Int Med, 2000;132: 903-910) containing not only the Bird and Harris studies counted as positive, but also the Targ study on brain tumors, found by reporter Po Bronson to have had its end point altered by the authors when the primary one showed no effect.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Faith Healing & Spirituality, General, Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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