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Do physicians really believe in placebos?

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a previous post, I argued that placebo is an artifact of certain clinical interactions, rather than a treatment that we can exploit. Apparently, there are a whole lot of doctors out there who don’t agree with me. Or are there?

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal is getting
a lot of enk (e-ink) in the blogosphere. As a practicing internist, I have some pretty strong opinions (based in fact, of course) about both this study and placebos in general.

The Study

The current BMJ study defines placebo as “positive clinical outcomes caused by a treatment that is not attributable to its known physical properties or mechanism of action.”  I’ve got a lot of problems with this definition, but we’ll get to that later.  It also allowed physiologically active medications to “count” as placebos.  Oops.

The study surveyed internists and rheumatologists practicing in the U.S. They tried to control negative responses to the term “placebo” thusly (from the Methods section):

Because the term “placebo” and behaviours surrounding its use can be contentious, we devised a series of non-judgmental questions beginning with broad questions that avoided the term “placebo” and then gradually gained more specificity, culminating in items whose responses used a clear definition of a “placebo treatment.” By constructing a series of items in this manner we allowed respondents to describe their attitudes and experiences as accurately as possible.

The first set of three items began with a hypothetical scenario in which a dextrose tablet was shown in clinical trials to be superior to a no treatment control group (thus establishing its efficacy as a placebo treatment). To avoid biasing responses these three questions did not use the term “placebo,” “placebo treatment,” or “placebo effect.”

I know a lot of doctors.  They tend to be fairly bright.  I don’t think any of them would be deceived by this scenario.  When you read “dextrose pill”, you think “placebo”.  It might as well be the same word.

Respondents were then asked to indicate which of several treatments they had used within the past year primarily as a placebo treatment, defined as a treatment whose benefits derive from positive patient expectations and not from the physiological mechanism of the treatment itself; and how they typically described placebo treatments to patients. By asking these five questions both without the term “placebo” and then using the term, we aimed to assess physicians’ practices as accurately as possible.

All docs would recognize this as a placebo scenario.  However, the definition above is rather problematic.   Is a placebo “a treatment whose benefits derive from positive patient expectations and not from the physiologic mechanism of the treatment itself”?

The validity of this study hinges on the answer to this question.

Placebo—I do not think it means what you think it means

The concept of placebo, and the way it is used in this study are both problematic.  First, we have an elephant in the exam room.  When we observe a so-called placebo effect, we are very susceptible to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  Just because the patient’s condition changes doesn’t mean we have done anything to cause that change.  In fact, due to the remarkably inexact human pattern-recognition software, we are likely to attribute a change in a patient’s condition to something, and if we don’t know what that something is, we may label it “placebo”.  So the very concept of placebo may be an artifact of our way of thinking, a label to place on a co-incidence, rather than a “thing”.  We may have wrongly reified a rather fuzzy concept.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Placebos in the news again

ResearchBlogging.orgTowards the end of last week, I was contemplating what I would be writing about for Monday. No topic had quite floated my boat, but I hated to dip into the archive of topics I’ve written about before to update a post. After all, I like to be topical whenever possible. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear (yes, I know Christmas is still two months away) but a study in the British Medical Journal by a group lead by Jon C. Tiburt at the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health in collaboration with investigators at the Osler Institute at Harvard University and the McClean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago entitled Prescribing “placebo treatments”: results of national survey of US internists and rheumatologists.

Serendipity? Who cares? The study addresses a very important aspect of science-based medicine.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Is There a Placebo Effect for Animals?

One of the occasional arguments used in support of “alternative” approaches to human medicine is the observation that since “alternative” medicine is used (with anecdotal success) in animals, and animals don’t know anything about the treatment that they’re getting, then they must work a priori.  Of course, the fallacy of such an observation is pretty obvious to anyone with a logical/skeptical frame of mind, because it assumes that the therapies do work (even though there’s little evidence of that).

Clearly, however, some people perceive that the therapies work, including veterinarians – there are veterinary acupuncturists, chiropractors, homeopaths, etc., etc.  Since there’s very little scientific support for the idea that the therapies actually have any clinically significant effect on biological processes, including the processes that result in disease, questions arise as to whether there are other effects of “alternative” treatments on animals. Specifically, people may wonder whether or not animals can benefit from placebo effects.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Science and Medicine, Veterinary medicine

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Another new blogger, or SBM is going to the dogs (well, horses, actually)

We at Science-Based Medicine are pleased to announce the recruitment of yet another blogger to add to the discussion of the scientific basis of medicine. We’re especially pleased because he will help us address questions that we were not particularly well-equipped to address before his joining us. So, please welcome to the SBM fold David Ramey, DVM, who will be discussing science- and evidence-based veterinary medicine.

David Ramey, DVM, is a 1983 graduate of Colorado State University. After completing an internship in equine medicine and surgery at Iowa State University, he entered private equine practice in southern California. Dr. Ramey is an author of numerous books on equine health care, and a prominent voice for the application of evidence-based standards to veterinary medicine. He was a member of the task for on “Therapeutic Options” of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, as well as a member of the task force that wrote the current guidelines for the use of “Complementary and Alternative” veterinary medicine for the American Veterinary Association. He has published numerous articles and books pertaining to “alternative” approaches to veterinary medicine, including the 2004 Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine Considered, co-authored with world renowned veterinary ethicist Dr. Bernard Rollin.

We get a fair number of questions about the use of “alternative” medical practices such as homeopathy and acupuncture on animals, particularly from people who ask us how they can appear to work on animals when animals supposedly don’t exhibit placebo effects. Dr. Ramey will be of great value in discussing such issues. Unfortunately, he will only be able to contribute posts around once a month or so. Fortunately, his first post will appear tomorrow. Don’t miss it.

Posted in: Announcements

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51 “Facts” About Homeopathy

Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.

—- Mark Twain

I use a Mac, so I know I think different. I also coexist on an alternative parallel world where people live on the same planet as me, but have such a radically different way of thinking that I wonder if we have the same ability to evaluate reality (1).

The best example of different ways of seeing the same thing is homeopathy. Homeopathy is utterly and completely ridiculous with zero plausibility or efficacy. Only therapeutic touch is its rival. Yet homeopath Louise Mclean can suggest there are 50 facts that validate homeopathy (2). These facts were presented as an attempt to counter criticism that homeopathy is only water with no therapeutic effects.

Lets evaluate each fact. There are two parts to the evaluations: whether the fact is true and what, if any, logical fallacy is being used. Deciding on which logical fallacy is being used is not my strong point, feel free to correct me in the comments, and I will add to the text later.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy

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When Further Research Is NOT Warranted: The “Wisdom of Crowds” Fallacy

Most scientific research studies have at least one thing in common: the conclusion section ends with, “further research is warranted.” I’d say it’s about as common as the “talk to your doctor” disclaimer in TV ads for pharmaceutical products. And in a way, they both serve the same purpose. They’re a “CYA” move.

What does “further research is warranted” mean in plain English? I think it can be roughly translated: “My research study is not of the size or scope to fully explain all the phenomena described in this article. Therefore, draw conclusions beyond the data and study methods at your own risk. And yeah, my work is important and cool – so people should study it further.”

Of course, the first two sentences are reasonable – we should always remember not to draw conclusions beyond the information provided by the data we’ve collected (even though that’s about as challenging as getting a beagle not to eat a table scrap in an empty room). The real problem is the third sentence. Is the research promising enough to require further investment? How are we to know if further research is indeed warranted? I would argue that it should not be based solely on the subjective opinions of the researchers nor the popularity of the research topic to the general public. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, General, Science and Medicine

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Interpreting the Medical Literature

The science in science-based medicine includes all of science, but relies most heavily on the biomedical literature – published studies that collectively represent our scientific medical knowledge. The scientific basis of medicine is only as good as this body of knowledge and the manner in which it is interpreted and put into practice.

We often discuss on this blog how to evaluate individual studies- the need for blinding, randomization, the importance of study size to meaningful statistical analysis, and other features that distinguish a reliable study from a worthless one. This is important, but only half of the equation. We also at times discuss the medical literature as it relates to a specific medical question or set of related questions – does homeopathy work or are statins beneficial for cholesterol reduction, for example. This requires not only the ability to judge individual studies, but a higher order analysis of the overall pattern of evidence among all relevant studies. Failure to do this, by focusing only on individual studies, results in the failure to see the forest for the trees.

It is this higher order analysis that I wish to discuss in this entry.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Puncturing the Acupuncture Myth

Note: This is slightly revised from an article I originally wrote as a “SkepDoc” column for Skeptic magazine. It was pre-released online in eSkeptic and it has already generated a lot of comments, including “a truly amazing piece of peurile pseudo-intellectualism,” “an ad hominem attack on one form of alternative medicine so beset by poor thinking that one must come to the conclusion this woman might just be paid to write such propaganda,” and “twaddle wrapped in swaddling rhetoric.” (I treasure comments like those as evidence that my critics are so bankrupt of real arguments that they have to dip into the insult pouch for ammunition.)  I thought it would be interesting to post it here on the blog and see how much controversy it would stir up among my co-bloggers and readers.  Please keep in mind that it was written for a popular audience and excuse the lack of scholarly citations. You may recognize some of the studies I refer to from previous blog entries.

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“Alternative” medicine is by definition medicine that has not been scientifically proven and has not been accepted into mainstream scientific medicine. The question I keep hearing is, “But what about acupuncture? It’s been proven to work, it’s supported by lots of good research, more and more doctors are using it, and insurance companies even pay for it.”

It’s time the acupuncture myth was punctured – preferably with an acupuncture needle. Almost everything you’ve heard about acupuncture is wrong. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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When compassion is outshined by ignorance

In a media-saturated society, public figures have a disproportionate influence on people’s understanding of science and medicine. Most patients see their doctor no more than a couple of times a year, but they watch TV, go online, or read a paper daily. In our newspapers and in our news rooms, dedicated science reporters are becoming vanishingly rare.   A wide range of news sources seep into this gap, but perhaps one of the most unfortunate is the “celebrity health expert”.

Uninformed statements from celebrities are nothing new, but when the queen of the antivaccination movement gets to call someone else stupid, that’s news.

Comedian Dennis Leary did little to advance the cause of humor or medical knowledge when he wrote this:

“There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don’t give a [bleep] what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you – yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

There is no “autism epidemic” as such, but there sure is a lot of ink spilled in ignorance, and Leary certainly seems to have a surfeit of that.  But never fear, Jenny McCarthy will come to the rescue of autistic folks everywhere.

“My fight isn’t with Denis Leary, my fight is with the government — a bigger fish to fry. So I’m still gonna work on the vaccines and I’m still working on pediatricians and Denis Leary can go hopefully be more educated by every mother that stops him from this day forward to give him a piece of their mind,” she said.

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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Dr. Jay Gordon and me: Random encounters with an apologist for the antivaccine movement

27452983Although he doesn’t detest me nearly as much as antivaccine honcho and founder of Generation Rescue J. B. Handley does, Santa Monica celebrity pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon doesn’t like me very much at all.

Actually, I’m not sure whether that’s entirely true or not, but Dr. Gordon sure doesn’t like it when I criticize him for his antivaccine rhetoric. He affects an oh-so-wounded posture and self-righteously assures me that he is not “anti-vaccine” and that it is “beneath me” to use such rhetoric against him. Whether such rhetoric is “beneath me” or not, however, I’ve never quite understood why Dr. Gordon gets so upset at when I describe him as “anti-vaccine.” After all, his words are frequently apologetics for the anti-vaccine movement, and his actions frequently give it aid and comfort. After all, he is Jenny McCarthy‘s son Evan’s pediatrician, and as a result of that connection he has been giving speeches to antivaccine rallies, such as the “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, D.C. in June. (He is the man in the sunglasses behind Jim Carrey in the picture at the top of this post by me.) After all, he has been palling around with luminaries of the antivaccine movement, such as Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey, the aforementioned J. B. Handley, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Boyd Haley, and numerous others at events like the “Green Our Vaccines” rally.

But, above all, over the last three or four years, Dr. Gordon has become the go-to pediatrician that the media seemingly always wants to interview when a vaccine “skeptic” with an MD after his name is required to provide the “balance” that journalists worship above all else, even when that “balance” gives undue credence to pseudoscientific nonsense. He clearly relishes that role, too, most infamously on his appearance with Jenny McCarthy on Larry King Live!, in which McCarthy shouted down pro-vaccine physicians and yelled “Bullshit!” (as if she who yells the loudest and is the most foul-mouthed wins the debate) and as evidenced by his appearances on certain antivaccination mailing lists, from which messages are occasionally forwarded to me.

What else am I supposed to think, except that Dr. Jay is at the very least an apologist for the antivaccine fringe, if not a card-carrying member himself?

Unfortunately, Dr. Gordon strikes me as being mostly a nice guy. I say “unfortunately” because it would be much easier to be as harsh on him as his promotion of antivaccine pseudoscience deserves if he were not. He also clearly believes that he is right based on the evidence. Based on science and clinical evidence, he most definitely is not. Recently, I had decided more or less to lay off him for a while, so as to avoid the wounded cries that invariably accompany valid charges that he is an apologist for the antivaccine fringe. Also, I felt kind of bad beating up on him so regularly and thought that perhaps a respite was in order. Then I found out that Dr. Gordon wrote the foreword to Jenny McCarthy’s new antivaccine and pro-autism quackery book, Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds. Then, one of my readers actually took the time to transcribe Dr. Gordon’s foreword and e-mail it to me.

I read it, and I was appalled.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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