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Credulous medical reporting

Science and medicine reporting is hard. In this space and otherswe’ve dealt with some of the problems that arise when “generalist” reporters try to “do” science and medicine. And now, CNN has shut down its science unit. Given the increasing complexity of medical and scientific knowledge, this is very bad news.

As a fine example of poor medical reporting, let’s look at a local business magazine. The article, called “The Fatigue Factor”, is about fibromyalgia, and manages to get it wrong from the very beginning.

Some medical reporting is destined to be bad simply because the topic is too complex for a generalist reporter. But sometimes, a reporter succumbs to journalistic sloth. In this story, for instance, if the reporter had spoken to a recognized local expert rather than a self-proclaimed expert, she would have written a much different article.

Let’s start with the headline:
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Direct-To-Consumer Science

Dr. Olivier Ameisen is a prominent French cardiologist who believes that the muscle-relaxant drug baclofen relieves the cravings of alcoholism. This is indeed an interesting, and as yet unsettled, scientific medical question. Dr. Ameisen has decided to take his personal scientific opinion directly to the public in his book – Le Dernier Verre (The Last Glass). The result has been a surge of interest among alcoholics for this new “miracle cure” for their affliction.

Increasingly the medical community is caught between two opposing imperatives. There is the desire to make medical information freely available and the process of medical research transparent. On the other hand, the public is best served when new ideas in medicine are put through the mill of science before they become part of medical practice. As we enter headlong into the information age these two imperatives are increasingly at odds.

Problems arise when a new treatment, syndrome, intervention, or concept in medicine is promoted to the public prior to undergoing a reasonable degree of scientific vetting. What is the point, after all, of spending tremendous resources on medical research if proponents are going to bypass the process altogether to market their modalities and promote their ideas directly to the public?

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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“I Reject Your Reality” – Germ Theory Denial and Other Curiosities

Note: This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine. Space limitations resulted in omitting some of what I wanted to say. I’m taking advantage of having a blog to publish the entire article as originally submitted.

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On an episode of Mythbusters, Adam Savage was shown a video clip that contradicted his memory of something he had said. He responded, “I reject your reality… and substitute my own.” He was joking. Unfortunately, the world is full of people who reject reality and who are not joking.

James Randi tells a story about a TV program that featured Uri Geller doing his standard trick of bending a key. Afterwards, the program’s host said it couldn’t possibly have been a trick because Uri had “never touched” the key. The host was then shown the recorded program, which proved that Geller clearly had the key in his hands, for two-and-a-half minutes. Instead of admitting having been wrong, the host exclaimed, “Well, that’s not how it happened.”

One of my own ancestors was a pro at this kind of thing. I’ll call her Aunt S (for stubborn). She had once tried tinned sardines, hated them, and refused to ever touch sardines again. One day she came into my grandmother’s kitchen when she was frying up some large fresh sardines a friend had brought her. Aunt S ate some, proclaimed them tasty, then asked, “What kind of fish were those, Mary?” My grandmother told her they were sardines. She protested, “No they weren’t! I don’t eat sardines!”

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Posted in: Nutrition, Vaccines

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H. influenzae—it ain’t the flu, but it’s still pretty cool

I’ve been thinking about an interesting organism lately, an organism that illustrates some basic principles in science-based medicine.

The organism is called Haemophilus influenzae (H flu), a gram-negative bacterium discovered in the late 19th century. H flu has a great story, both in historic and modern times.

The brilliant microbiologist Richard Pfeiffer isolated H flu from influenza patients in the late 1800′s (hence its name) and for many years, it was believed to be the cause of the epidemic illness, and when the flu pandemic of 1918 hit, researchers worked tirelessly to develop anti-sera against H flu.

But some things weren’t adding up. As thousands died of the flu, doctors were isolating H flu from victims, but also other virulent bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae. Influenza was decimating military camps, and was seriously degrading our ability to fight in WW I, so military bases were a focus of research. Doctors looked for H flu in patients, but could not find it consistently. For example in Camp Dodge, Iowa, an autopsy series showed H flu in only 9.6% of victims.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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How not to win friends and influence people

BLOGGER’S NOTE: The incident described in this post is true, although somewhat embellished to protect the names and identities of the innocent, if you know what I mean. This conversation occurred a few years ago at a large national cancer meeting.

The question caught me by surprise.

While attending a large national cancer meeting, I was having brunch with a friend, a colleague with whom I used to work when I was doing laboratory research, someone whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. She and her husband had brought along two of their oldest and dearest friends, whom they had known for decades, as well as another of my former coworkers from my old lab. We were idly chatting away and eating, when one of the occupational hazards of being a doctor presented itself. Tthe conversation drifted to medical topics. And then it came.

“What do you think of Dr. Gonzalez?”

Ah, hell.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Case Study Exploring the Battle Lines of Science Based Medicine

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post solicited by Dr. Hall, who describes Dr. Albietz thusly: He’s a skeptical young pediatrician who works in a PICU and recently had a chiropractor come into the PICU to consult on a child with intractable seizures. He was sort of coerced to allow this at the parents’ request and against his better judgment. His hospital had set a precedent of letting alternative practitioners have temporary privileges in cases like this. He was torn between his academic integrity and doing the most humane thing for the patient and family.

Primum non nocere.” First, do no harm. It is a guiding principle of medicine, and one which is next to impossible to achieve in practice. It is difficult for the general public to hear, but any intervention a physician makes, and indeed the decision to make no intervention, carries a risk of harm with it. Given enough time, every physician will make a decision which results in unintended harm to a patient, even death, and it haunts us every day of our careers. Faced with this horrible certainty, what is one to do? The only responsible, ethical position to take is to ensure that each patient receives the care most likely to generate a positive outcome, in other words, to stack the deck as steeply in favor of the patient as is possible. Diligent application of the scientific method to every therapy, novel and new, old and venerated, is the only way we as physicians can be certain we are doing the greatest good and the least harm to those who seek our help; it is the only way to assuage our conscience if things end badly.

Our professional organizations and academic institutions have been vital in formulating, propagating, and enforcing the practice of evidence based medicine (EBM). They have stood, to borrow the phrase from Carl Sagan, as “a candle in the dark,” promoting the best practices and protecting patients from those that are ineffective, fraudulent, harmful, or even simply sub-standard. It is a heartening environment in which to work.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Medical Ethics

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Google Trends and the Interest in Alternative Medicine

USA Today has come out with a new survey – apparently, three out of every four people make up 75% of the population.

–David Letterman

How popular is alternative medicine? One way is to survey people and ask them. Like all surveys, the nature of the question determines the answer. The first, and probably most referenced, and misquoted, article on ‘alternative’ medicine to address the question was “Unconventional Medicine in the United States — Prevalence, Costs, and Patterns of Use” from the NEJM .

‘Alternative’ proponents quote this article, often as the opening sentence of the paper. “One in three respondents (34 percent) reported using at least one unconventional therapy in the past year.” No one, it appears, ever reads past the abstract. As is so often the case, the substance of the article may not reflect the spin found in the abstract.

There are many issues with this paper (see http://www.quackwatch.org/11Ind/eisenberg.html for a detailed critique) , not the least of which is the definition of unconventional therapy. To get to this huge percentage of users they had to include exercise (26%), prayer (25%) and relaxation techniques (13%) as unconventional therapies. Little did I know that I participate in unconventional therapies every day.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Psychological support and breast cancer – again

Does the degree of efficacy is depend on the time at which it is measured? Apparently so. The case of psychological support and breast cancer longevity again.

After an original 1989 report of positive effects on metastatic breast cancer, by 2006- 7 the majority of RCTs on such effects had settled the issue in the negative. This was only after 20 years of repeated research grants and RCTs based on hunches and feelings that somehow emotional support really affected the course of cancer. Investigations continued despite analyses showing the few original positive studies had been so flawed in design or defective in reported details, that they should have been dismissed and perhaps excluded from systematic reviews. (Spiegel D, Bloom JR, Kraemer H, Gottheil E. Psychological support for cancer patients, Lancet ,1989 Dec 16;2(8677):1447., Fawzy FI, Fawzy NW, et al. Malignant melanoma. Effects of an early structured psychiatric intervention, coping, and affective state on recurrence an survival 6 years later. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1993 Sep;50(9):681-9.)

But to advocates, conflicting results served as motive to prove the claims by repeating the studies for 20 years, “doing them right this time.” As of mid-2008, consensus was the issue was still “negative.” Now another study, claimed to be positive, makes the news.

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Open-Access Peer Review: Increasing the Noise To Signal Ratio

Readers of Science Based Medicine are quite familiar with the distressingly common logical leap made by disgruntled healthcare consumers into alternative medicine. It goes something like this: I had a terrible experience with a doctor who [ignored/patronized/misdiagnosed] me and I also heard something horrible in the media about a pharmaceutical company’s misbehavior [hiding negative results/overstating efficacy/overcharging for medications], therefore alternative treatments [homeopathy/acupuncture/energy healing, etc.] must be more effective than traditional medicine.

Much to my dismay, a similar logical leap is being made about online health information. It goes something like this: Peer reviewing is biased and often keeps innovative research hidden to the world at large, therefore the best kind of peer review is open-access where anyone in the world can contribute.

You may feel free to slap your forehead now.

While I have absolutely no doubt that doctors have their shortcomings, and that some have created less than pleasant healthcare experiences for their patients – the solution to these shortcomings is not to dive headlong into snake oil. Moreover, I agree that the current peer-review process has its flaws and limitations – the solution is not to ask Aunt Enid in Omaha what she thinks of the recent meta-analysis of perioperative beta blockers in patients having non-cardiac surgery.

Peter Frishauf, the founder of Medscape, recently published a webcast editorial predicting that:

“Peer review as we know it will disappear. Rather than the secretive prepublication review process followed by most publishers today, including Medscape, most peer review will occur transparently, and after publication.”

He goes on to describe a Wikipedia-like review scenario where:

“Any user can start an article, link it to related sources, and publish revisions with a click of the mouse. Anyone who reads an article can edit it.”

I know and like Peter very much, and his foresight (that publishing should become open-access), combined with the leadership of editorial heavy-weight, Dr. George Lundberg, led to the creation of the first really successful, quality, free online medical journal. This was no small feat, and a sure victory for global medical education efforts.

But the reason for The Medscape Journal’s success is not the “democratization” of peer review – but the democratization of access to trustworthy information. The quality controls are still in place – and must remain so – otherwise its value as a peer-reviewed journal will be utterly lost. Who should trust the edits of unqualified readers? Should science be determined by popular vote? Should all research be published by journals, regardless of its fatal flaws?

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Dr. Jay Gordon – “Anti-Vaccination”

Dr. Jay Gordon is a pediatrician and one of the stars of the anti-vaccinationist movement. (Dr. Gorski wrote an exellent criticism of many of his claims recently on SBM.) He is, in fact, the pediatrician to Jenny McCarthy’s son, Evan (who she claims was injured by vaccines). Several months ago he published an “open letter on vaccinations” which is now making the rounds on anti-vaccine websites. The letter is a work of pure arrogant pseudoscience – a crafted piece of anti-vaccine propaganda. He begins:

I don’t give a lot of vaccines.

I still give DPT vaccinations to some children, chicken pox shots to kids who haven’t been able to acquire natural immunity by age ten years or so, and I give polio vaccines very infrequently. The polio vaccines are given for what I call “emotional” reasons because my exposition of the “numbers” (2000 cases of polio out of six or seven billion people) doesn’t counteract the very strong memory of a beloved aunt or uncle who had polio in fifties or sixties. And many parents feel much more comfortable traveling to India or parts of Africa with updated polio immunity for their children and themselves. By the way, 2007-2008 statistics don’t support that discomfort, but I don’t argue much.
In 2007, there were 1314 cases of polio on the planet and 127 of them were in “endemic” countries: 873 in India, 285 in Nigeria, 41 in the Congo, 32 in Pakistan and 17 in Afghanistan.

As of July 1, 2008, halfway through the year, we’re running a similar pace with 714 cases of polio reported worldwide. Nigeria has had 353 cases, India 287.

His argument is that because the risk of catching polio is so low, the benefits to the individual child are not balanced by the risks of the vaccine. His argument, however, is bogus on many levels. First, the benefits of the vaccine to the individual child do outweigh the risks. That is largely due to the fact that the polio vaccine is very safe. Serious complications are extremely rare.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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