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Keeping ‘em alive

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the frequent complaints I hear about science-based medicine is that it is dangerous.  Of course, it’s true—so is riding in a train, but it sure beats walking.  And that’s the danger of this particular fallacy—yes, medicine is a sharp tool, but it’s also an effective tool, so we must use it properly.  And this is where the tools of evidence- and science-based medicine can give us a hand.

The potential harms of modern medicine must be approached carefully.  If they are ignored or approached in an ineffective way, we’ll miss an opportunity to save lives.  This comment from my other blog is typical:

You asked if so-called traditional Chinese medicine has ever eradicated any diseases. Well, yes. It pretty much eradicated one that is in epidemic numbers in the U.S. and most of the developed world: Iatrogenic disease.

This is wrong is so many ways.  The definition of “iatrogenic” is difficult.  The traditional definition is “adverse effects of medical treatment or advice.”  I suppose one could broaden this to include failure to give proper advice, as inaction by a physician has similar consequences to action, but perhaps that is a discussion for another day.

The way in which this is truly wrong is the false dichotomy. Yes, medical errors would be reduced to zero if we didn’t treat people, but the consequences would be rather dramatic.  Our goal should not be to abandon modern medicine because it sometimes causes harm.  Our goal is to reduce iatrogenic illness in a science-based way.

Strangely enough, this is being done.  A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine (effectively discussed here) described a study in which surgical checklists reduced errors.  This study was based on earlier work by Peter Provonost of Johns Hopkins, the subject of a terrific piece in the New Yorker.  (Related commentary here.)
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Since when did an apologist for the antivaccination movement, Dr. Jay Gordon, become an “expert” in vaccine law?

I am an alumnus of the University of Michigan twice over. I completed a B.S. in Chemistry with Honors there in 1984 and then I stayed on to do obtain my M.D. in 1988. I look back very fondly on those eight years spent in Ann Arbor, as several of my longtime friendships were forged or solidified during those years. Consequently, I still care about the place. Indeed, I even once tried to see if I could get a position in the Department of Surgery there a few years back, but unfortunately the “fit” just wasn’t there at the time. That’s why it distresses me when I see my alma mater suffer from a self-inflicted wound, almost as much as the plight of the Michigan Wolverines bothers me, given that never before in my life (at least not since I was old enough to pay attention), have the Wolverines sucked so badly and so hard. Given that level of football futility, though, I consider it even more important that my alma mater not provide any more ammunition to those who would enjoy making fun of it. It doesn’t matter to me that I never went to law school at Michigan; it’s all part of the same campus to me.

This time, the embarrassment comes in the form of an article in the Michigan Law Review by a person who has previously been a subject of posts by both Dr. Novella and me. I’m referring to Dr. Jay Gordon, whom we have both–correctly, I believe–labeled as being, if not fully anti-vaccine, at least a prominent and major apologist for the anti-vaccine movement. Unfortunately, because he is the pediatrician taking care of Jenny McCarthy’s son Evan, he has gained even greater prominence in the antivaccine movement than ever, to the point where he gave a speech last summer to the antivaccine “Green Our Vaccines” march on Washington and where he is regularly called up by TV producers to give a false “balance” whenever a discussion of vaccines and/or autism comes up. He also wrote the foreword to Jenny McCarthy’s latest paean to autism quackery and attack on vaccines as the cause of autism in which he blithely repeated some of the worst distortions of the antivaccine movement. Unfortunately, Dr. Gordon lacks the intestinal fortitude to stop the piteous denials any time he is called out for his parroting of antivaccine pseudsocience and to embrace his inner antivaccinationist. Then, at least, we wouldn’t be treated to the spectacle of his simultaneously claiming he is “pro-safe vaccine, not anti-vaccine” while at the same time saying he “doesn’t give a lot of vaccines” and admitting that parents have actually had to persuade him to vaccinate “reluctantly.”

So what was the topic of the Michigan Law Review article that Dr. Gordon was apparently asked to pen? It’s actually an interesting question from a legal, political and civil rights standpoint, specifically: Whether or not parents should be held legally liable for refusing to vaccinate their children. Not surprisingly, Dr. Gordon took the “no” position. Unfortunately, as we’ve come to expect of Dr. Gordon, he uses a number of highly dubious arguments. However, more interesting to me, having had a nearly four year history sparring online with him off and on, was the seemingly “kinder and gentler” antivaccine stance that he took in this article.

But first, let’s take a look at the debate. The symposium published in First Impressions (the online companion to the Michigan Law Review) was entitled Liability for Exercising Personal Belief Exemptions from Vaccination, and it contained the following articles:

  1. Choices Should Have Consequences: Failure to Vaccinate, Harm to Others, and Civil Liability by Douglas S. Diekema.
  2. Parents Should Not be Legally Liable for Refusing to Vaccinate their Children by Dr. Jay Gordon.
  3. Unintended Consequences: The Primacy of Public Trust in Vaccination by Jason L. Schwartz.
  4. Challenging Personal Belief Immunization Exemptions: Considering Legal Responses by Alexandra Stewart.
  5. Gambling with the Health of Others by Stephen P. Teret and John S. Vernick.
  6. The Problem of Vaccination Noncompliance: Public Health Goals and the Limitations of Tort Law by Daniel B. Rubin and Sophie Kasimow

There were a number of fascinating issues raised here. Although it’s obvious that universal vaccination is a public health policy good, given that the higher percentage of vaccinated children, the greater the herd immunity, there is always the nagging question of how far the state should go to mandate vaccination in a free society; i.e., how much coercion is acceptable to bring about maximal levels of vaccination? In other words, what is the proper balance between the needs of society as a whole and the rights of the individual? The next interesting legal and moral question is whether parents who refuse to vaccinate should be held liable for injuries to other children if their unvaccinated child passes on an infectious disease. Personally, I tend to believe that it is entirely reasonable to require vaccination as a precondition for school or day care and that exemptions should be primarily medical in nature. I grudgingly allow that the freedom of religion guaranteed in the First Amendment probably requires religious exemptions (although I do not understand why religion should be given such a privileged place in society that it can endanger public health), I am far less convinced that philosophical exemptions should be mandated. I realize many may disagree with this position, but I would hope that our disagreements would be based on (1) the best science regarding the benefits and risks of vaccination and (2) honest beliefs regarding the proper balance between public health concerns and individual liberty. Clearly, this is an area of debate. I also tend to believe that if parents refuse to vaccinate their child and that child passes an infectious disease to another child, then those parents should be potentially legally liable. Indeed, Douglas Diekema argues this position very well.

Unfortunately, Dr. Gordon does not meet at least condition #1 above. He does not base his arguments on the best science.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Just in case anyone’s interested…

…I’m actually on Facebook. So are Val Jones , David Kroll, Peter Lipson, and Steve Novella.

In any case, feel free to check it out and, if you’re interested, leave a note on my wall, that of my co-bloggers, or send us a friend request. Being somewhat new at this whole Facebook thing, I note with some amusement that, in a moment when I was in an unusually perverse mood, I sent Dr. Jay Gordon a friend request, and he actually confirmed it.

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Yes We Can! We Can Abolish the NCCAM! Part II

Pseudoscience and Dishonesty, continued: “Reliable Information”?

In the previous post, we examined misrepresentations by the late National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Director Stephen Straus and Margaret Chesney, written in 2006 as a rebuttal to a critical article by Donald Marcus and Arthur Grollman in Science magazine. Here, we continue. According to Straus and Chesney:

Before the establishment of NCCAM, there was no central source of CAM information. NCCAM brings evidence-based information on CAM to the public, practitioners, and researchers. NCCAM disseminates research findings and provides reliable information about commonly used CAM practices through numerous channels, including…its award-winning Web site… NCCAM’s communications program deals with a field that is controversial, that has many critics, and that reaches a public that wants reliable information.

Before the establishment of the NCCAM, there was an excellent source of reliable information about “CAM”: Quackwatch. It continues to be the most comprehensive source of such information.

The NCCAM itself does not provide “reliable information about commonly used ‘CAM’ practices.” Rather, it bends over backward—in some instances making categorically false statements—to portray absurd, dangerous, implausible, or disproved practices as safer and more promising than they are.

Examples follow, but first please consider an implicit yet abundant and compelling piece of evidence that has left several of us (1, 2, 3) scratching our heads since the NCCAM began: each year the Center bestows numerous grants for the purpose of teaching “CAM” (not “CAM research”) to health professionals or for “integrating CAM” into various programs, or for establishing “integrative medicine” centers. For examples, look here. Isn’t this putting the cart before the horse? How can this be viewed as anything other than promoting “CAM”? Consider that Straus and Chesney also wrote:

In the early years of NCCAM, there was a sense of urgency to scientifically assess a range of CAM therapies that had been in long use by the public in the absence of proof of safety or efficacy.

In the subsequent 8 years, there has not been a burgeoning list of “CAM therapies” that have been proven safe and effective. The number of treatments that would qualify for that list, or for a comparable list before the creation of the NCCAM is, if you’ll excuse the rudeness of reliable information,…zero. In other words, the NCCAM admits that the treatments that characterize its “CAM integration” projects have not been shown safe and effective.

But back to a few explicit examples of unreliable information.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Reality Deniers

“You have an irrational belief in rational thought.” ~Dr David Scholes, directed towards me.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” ~T.S. Eliot

I just finished the book Mathematical Cranks by Underwood Dudley, part of a trifecta of skeptical mathematics books.

Doctor Dudley is a professor of mathematics at Depau University and a connoisseur of cranks with a mathematical bent.

What is a mathematical crank?

Mathematics is a peculiar field. Whether or not some aspects of mathematics exist independent of humans is an ongoing debate, but within its axioms and proofs is a consistent body of well defined, internally consistent knowledge.

Within that knowledge, ideas can, under the rules of mathematics and logic, can be proved or disproved, to be absolutely true or false or to be impossible.

No prior plausibility that pester the world of scientific medicine and the evaluation of woo. No borderline p values that hint at effects. No biologic variability. No placebo effect. No investigator or patient bias. No placebo effect. No N rays. No unproven water memory or meridians or subluxations.

Just clean, beautiful, mathematics. True or false. Possible or impossible. I simplify a bit, but mathematics, especially at the lower levels, is an internally consistent field of study. What happens in the math of 11 dimension string theory is beyond my puny intellect.

In mathematics there are things that are impossible. Absolutely impossible. No ifs, ands, or buts. Impossible. Can’t be done no how no way. In the world of mathematics, things are not only impossible, they are proven truly impossible within the boundaries of the mathematical discipline.

An example of mathematical impossibility is the quadrature of the circle, also called squaring the circle.

It is impossible, using only a straight edge ruler and a compass, to construct a square with the same area as a given circle. It was proved to be impossible in 1882 by Lindeman. Not improbable or unlikely or very, very, very difficult. With in mathematical reality, it is impossible.

Just because it is impossible does not prevent people from attempting to square the circle. They send these ‘proofs’ to mathematicians for comment.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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The Many Faces Of Snake Oil

It is my unhappy duty to reveal yet another depressing example of dishonest gain in medicine. This time, however, patients were not the only victims. Many healthcare professionals, including physicians, were prey to what has been called “an intellectual property ponzi scheme.”

In a press release dated January 28, 2009, the HealthCentral Network announced the acquisition of a company called Wellsphere from its young CEO, Ron Gutman. Many of my fellow medical bloggers are familiar with Wellsphere as they’ve received countless email form letters from its CMIO, Dr. Geoffrey Rutledge. The form letters are flattering, and suggest that the company would like to feature the blogger’s writing on their platform.

But what happens next is disturbing – to become a member of Wellsphere, bloggers provide access to their blog’s RSS feed. Hidden in the fine print is the blogger’s consent for Wellsphere to publish the entire feed (in other words, all of the blogger’s written work) and that once it’s published on their site, they own the intellectual property rights to it.

Astonishingly Wellsphere convinced some 1700 bloggers to join their network, and have now sold their site (which is comprised almost entirely of blog post content) to HealthCentral Network for an undisclosed amount, likely in the millions.

How much did the health bloggers get for their writing? As far as I know, zero dollars.

In the reference section below you will see copies of emails sent by Dr. Rutledge and excerpts from the website’s Terms of Use document.

Is this the biggest scam ever pulled on health bloggers? You decide. The Wall Street Journal health blog reports:

As for the thousands of bloggers HealthCentral picks up with the merger, there is already grumbling in the blogosphere that Wellsphere built its business on health bloggers who don’t benefit from the deal. “But most are happy and we hope with all our resources and quality-content background we will really strengthen these engagements,” Schroeder told us.

Interesting statement from Schroeder – “most are happy.” He clearly hasn’t read the comments section of my blog. If there ever were a time for the medical/science/health blogosphere to rise up “Motrin moms-style,” it would be now. You may Tweet in protest by entering your comment with “#wellsphere” on Twitter. Or kick it old-school here in our comment section.

If you have any additional information, feel free to post it in the comments section below.

References:

Here is the introductory form email sent out by Dr. Rutledge:
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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More Data on Vaccine Safety Amid New Outbreaks

The more recent issue of the Journal Pediatrics contains two article providing further evidence for the safety of vaccines and is published amid news reports of recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in those who chose not to vaccinate over unwarranted fears. This highlights the need to continue our PR battle against the antivaccinationist movement that seeks to spread pseudoscientific fears about vaccine safety.

The Outbreaks

Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib) is a bacteria that can cause meningitis, pneumonia, and epiglotitis in young children – all serious illnesses. A Hib vaccine was introduced in 1992 followed by a significant decrease in the number of Hib infections. Last year in Minnesota, however, there were five cases of Hib meningitis, including a 7-month old infant who died. This is a significant spike above the rate we have seen since the Hib vaccine, and occuring in a cluster. Three of the five children who were affected did not have the Hib vaccine by their parent’s choice.

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Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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Psychiatry-Bashing

Psychiatry is arguably the least science-based of the medical specialties. Because of that, it comes in for a lot of criticism. Much of the criticism is justified, but some critics make the mistake of dismissing even the possibility that psychiatry could be scientific. They throw the baby out with the bathwater. I agree that psychiatry has a lot of very dirty bathwater, but there is also a very healthy baby in there that should be kept, cherished, nourished, and helped to grow – scientifically.

Common criticisms in the media

  • We are over-medicating our children, producing a generation of drugged zombies.
  • We are using medication indiscriminately for people who don’t fit the diagnosis (i.e. antidepressants for people who only have normal mood fluctuations and life problems).
  • Antidepressants lead to violence and suicide.
  • Psychotropic medications all have terrible side effects.
  • Antidepressants are no better than placebo.
  • Psychotherapies are no better than talking to a friend.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a barbaric, damaging assault with no redeeming value.
  • And we all remember how Tom Cruise attacked Brooke Shields on the issue of postpartum depression.

Thomas Szasz: Mental Illness is a Myth

Thomas Szasz goes even further: he rejects the whole concept of mental illness and considers it a plot to interfere with people’s human rights. He says:

  • Psychiatric diagnoses are not valid because they are based on symptoms rather than on objective tests. (Steve Novella has pointed out that there are other well-established diagnoses like migraine that cannot be verified by any objective tests.)
  • Mental illness is a myth: unusual behavior does not constitute a disease.
  • Psychiatric diagnoses are an arbitrary construct of society to facilitate control of individuals whose behavior does not conform.
  • Involuntary commitment is never justified even for the protection of the patient: patients always have the right to refuse treatment even if that means they will die. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Historic College of Pharmacy to Honor Homeopathy Leader

I am a graduate of the institution known formerly as the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (PCP&S) – the first college of pharmacy in North America, established in 1821.  The college, now called University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, counts among its alumni John Wyeth, Silas M. Burroughs, Sir Henry Wellcome, several members of the Eli Lilly and McNeil families, and other historical figures in pharmacy among founders of what have now become large pharmaceutical companies.

Although I was among the 35% of students in the “and Science” side of PCP&S, earning a BS in Toxicology, I was there at a time before Big Pharma had acquired much of the bad name it often carries today and we took great pride in our college’s rich history and contributions to modern medicine.  In particular PCP&S graduates were critical players in combating snake oil hucksters in the early 1900s and establishing chemical standards, safety, and efficacy guidelines for therapeutic agents.

So it is with disbelief that I learned my alma mater plans to award an Honorary Doctorate of Science to a major leader in homeopathy – on Founders’ Day, no less.  The press release is here.

I’ve just sent the following e-mail to University President, Philip P. Gerbino, Pharm.D., and Provost Russell J. DiGate, Ph.D.:

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Dismantling NCCAM: A How-To Primer

Two of the earliest posts I wrote for Science-Based Medicine were entitled The infiltration of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and “integrative medicine” into academia and The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): Your tax dollars hard at work. Both were intended as a lament over how not only is pseudoscientific quackery, much of it based on a prescientific understanding of how the human body works and disease occurs, finding its way into some of the most prestigious academic medical centers in the U.S. (for example, Georgetown and Beth Israel) but it’s even finding its way into the heart of the U.S. military.

Worse, aiding and abetting this infiltration is the federal government itself in the form of NCCAM. As I discussed in my usual excruciating detail in my original post and as Steve Novella, Kimball Atwood, and I have subsequently discussed many times on this very blog, particularly recently (so much so that I’m thinking of giving NCCAM its very own category here on SBM), NCCAM not only funds studies of dubious “alternative” therapies, such as reiki and homeopathy, that estimates of prior probability alone would argue to be so close to impossible as to be not worth spending millions, much less thousands, of dollars upon, but it also promotes quackery by funding “fellowships” at various institutions to teach “complementary and alterantive medicine” (CAM) sometimes also called “integrative medicine” (IM). Given that it spends over $120 million a year on mostly dubious studies and CAM promotion, we all have called for NCCAM to be defunded and disbanded.

Nearly a year has passed since I wrote those two posts. Ironically enough, at the time I wrote my first post about NCCAM for this blog, I pointed out that at first I had disagreed with my co-blogger Wally Sampson and his call to “defund” the NCCAM in an article published on Quackwatch nearly five years ago. My original reason was that I thought that there was value in studying these therapies to find out once and for all whether these therapies do anything greater than placebo or not. I now admit that I was very naive, and this was how I admitted it:

Two developments over the last several years have led me to sour on NCCAM and move towards an opinion more like Dr. Sampson’s. First, after its doubling from FY 1998-2003, the NIH budget stopped growing. In fact, adjusting for inflation, the NIH budget is now contracting. NCCAM’s yearly budget remains in the range of $121 million a year, for well over $1 billion spent since its inception as the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1993. Its yearly budget contains enough money to fund around 75 to 100 new five year R01 grants, give or take. In tight budgetary times my view is that it is a grossly irresponsible use of taxpayer money not to prioritize funding for projects that have hypotheses behind them that have a reasonable chance of being true. Scarce NIH funds should not be for projects that have as their basis hypotheses that are outlandishly implausible from a scientific standpoint. Second, I’ve seen over the last few years how NCCAM is not only funding research (most of which is of the sort that wouldn’t stand a chance in a study section from other Institutes or Centers)) but it’s funding training programs. Indeed, that was the core complaint against NCCAM: that it facilitates and promotes the infiltration of nonscience- and nonevidence-based treatments falling under the rubric of so-called “complementary and alternative” or “integrative” medicine into academic medicine.

Nothing has changed since I wrote those words–except for one thing. We now have a new President who stated in his inaugural address:

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

As Kimball Atwood put it, Yes We Can! We Can Abolish the NCCAM! The big and as yet unasked (and unanswered) question is: How? Neither defunding nor dismantling NCCAM will be easy, and we have to think about how to preserve the functions of NCCAM that might be worth saving.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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