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Does alternative medicine have alternative ethics?

Kimball Atwood has an interesting series of posts on the ethics of alternative medicine which I strongly encourage you to read.  He does a great job examining the ethical implications of certain alternative medicine practices, and has a terrific dialog with Peter Moran, a frequent commenter here.   At my other online locale, I make frequent forays into the morass of medical ethics, with an emphasis on specific clinical scenarios.  Today, though, I’d like to take a step back and examine the nature of medical ethics as they apply to so-called alternative medicine.

First, and perhaps most important, I am not an ethicist.  I do not have the depth of reading, the knowledge of terminology, or the specific education to lead a formal discussion on ethics.  What I am is a practicing internist, who must make ethical decisions on a daily basis. Most of these decisions are of necessity made “from the heart”, but it is not infrequent that I must evaluate a situation more formally and fall back on some of the ethical principles of my profession.

Ethics are not static.  They are not a divine gift bestowed on each of us as we don our white coats.  They are a living part of our specific cultures, and of the profession we serve.  Some of the modern principles of medical ethics are newer than others.  Beneficence, non-maleficence, and confidentiality are ancient principles of medical ethics, which continue to be relevant today.  Patient autonomy is a more recent value, reflecting a shift in how society views the relationship between patient and physician.  These ethics must be mutable, as the profession itself is ever-changing.  Despite this fluidity, there is an identifiable line of “doctor-hood” that has existed for at least the last century, and the members of this guild have always tried to adhere to some type of code of behavior.

Alternative medicine poses real challenges to the principle of medical ethics.  First, we’ll discuss who, in fact, is bound by these principles, then the way in which alternative medicine is or is not compatible with medical ethics. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., vaccines, the EPA, and the interface with science-based medicine and public policy

This blog is entitled Science-Based Medicine for a reason, and that’s because we here at SBM believe that the best method to result in the most efficacious treatments for the most people is through the application of science to the evaluation of the biology, pathophysiology, and treatment of disease and disorders.

I may (or may not) be departing a bit from the views of my co-bloggers with this belief, but for purposes of this blog I consider “medicine” to go far beyond what we as physicians do when we undertake to treat patients. In fact, in my view, the purview of science-based medicine should not be so limited but should include any area where decisions, actions, or policy have a direct impact on health. Thus, my definition of science-based medicine encompasses environmental policy, because of the profound effect on human health environmental pollution and toxins can have. Unfortunately for those of us who don’t like its messiness, such a view drives me even more directly into politics than previous issues I’ve taken on. Like Dr. Novella, I rarely write about politics, but when it directly impacts science-based medicine. Mostly, such discussions here on SBM have involved the regulation of the medical profession by government, as Dr. Atwood discussed recently (1, 2, 3) in the context of the difficulties medical boards have in preventing quackery to my discussion of how a quack like Dr. Rashid Buttar could continue to practice in North Carolina, despite his despicable preying upon desperate cancer patients and the parents of children with autism, not to mention the frequent criticisms of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Dr. Sampson, on the other hand, was more than willing to examine a much more explicitly political issue, namely the number of Iraq War dead (1, 2), and that provoked a bit of disagreement with our commenters, not to mention me.

Recently, hot on the heels of the election of Barack Obama in the Presidential election last week, an issue relevant to several aspects of where science-based medicine intersects public policy popped up. Steve Novella has already commented on it on his own blog, as have numerous other medical bloggers, science bloggers, and political bloggers but I feel justified in commenting on it here, for the reasons that I’ve just mentioned. The controversy is that antivaccine activist and true believer in the scientifically discredited notion that mercury in the thimerosal preservative in vaccines causes autism, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is being seriously considered by Barack Obama either to head the Environmental Protection Agency or even to be Secretary of the Interior. Like our fearless leader Steve, I believe that such a selection would be an unmitigated disaster for science policy in government.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“It’s just a theory”

I am afraid that the experiments you quote, M. Pasteur, will turn against you. The world into which you wish to take us is really too fantastic.

La Presse, 1860

It’s just a theory. Not evolution. Germ theory. Just a theory, one of many that account for the etiology of diseases.

I should mention my bias up front. I am, as some of you are aware, an Infectious Disease doctor. My job is simple: me find germ, me kill germ, me go home. I think there are three causes of disease: wear and tear, genetic, and germs. Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. My professional life for the last 22 years has been spent preventing, diagnosing, and treating the multitudinous germs that a continually trying to kill or injure us. It is a fundamentally futile job, as in the end I will be consumed by the organisms I have spend a lifetime trying to kill.

I would have though that the germ theory of disease was a concept that was so grounded in history, science and reality that there would be little opposition to the idea that germs (a broad term for viruses, bacteremia, fungi, parasite etc) cause infections and some other diseases.

Wrong. There are people who deny the validity of germ theory. Add there are people who deny gravity. And evolution.

Opponents of germ theory come in two flavors:

  1. Germ theory deniers.
  2. Those who propose alternative mechanisms of disease.

There is great overlap between the two categories, and the division serves more as a literary device for the sake of exposition than a true description of reality.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Breast cancer and migraines–what is risk, anyway?

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the questions most often asked in the medical literature is “what is the risk of x?”  It’s a pretty important question.  I’d like to be able to tell my patient with high blood pressure what their risk of heart attack is, both with and without treatment.  And risk is a sexy topic—the press loves it.  Whether it’s cell phones and the “risk” of brain cancer, or vaccines and the “risk” of autism, risk makes for cool headlines.  Take this one for example:

Migraines cut breast cancer risk 30 percent: study

What does this mean?  Should I tell my wife to go out and find some migraines?  I have a feeling one or more of my colleagues will give a more detailed critique of this study, but I’d like to talk to you a bit about what we mean by “risk”.

Risk, in the most basic sense, is a causal association.  If, for example, I find that members of the “Thunderstorm-lovers Golf Association” have a higher incidence of being struck by lightning than golfers who don’t belong to this odd club, I may have stumbled upon a measurable risk.  There is both a measurable association, and a plausible reason to causally link the associated variables.   If I find that members of the National Association of Philatelists have a higher incidence of heart disease than other folks, I may or may not have stumbled on a risk.  Is there a reason that philatelists should have more heart disease?  Is it a coincidence?  Is it worth investigating further?  Is there a confounding variable, e.g. are philatelists in general older, and did I fail to control for this?

Then there is the question of the degree of risk.  How strong is the risk observed?

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Wyeth vs. Levine: Should Drug Label Standards Be Determined By Juries?

It is with some degree of trepidation that I enter the fray on the Wyeth vs. Levine case. I’ve been watching the media frenzy about the lawsuit with interest – mostly because (for the first time in a while) I think that the pharmaceutical company is in the right on this one – and that most journalists (and even medical journal editors) have missed the salient points.

I think that a close review of the case is instructive in two ways. It shows: 1) the dangers of making legal decisions based on the perspective of the victim (a risk of harm equal to 1 in 20 million is unacceptable to that one person who suffered the consequence, but tolerable to the other 19,999,999 others) and 2) that a simple case of medical malpractice has made it all the way to the US Supreme Court because (as I discussed in my last post) a democratization of knowledge (juries reading a drug label) was believed to democratize expertise (how a physician would understand the label).
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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Rainman – Link Between Precipitation and Autism

A new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine shows a positive correlation between counties in California, Oregon, and Washington with greater precipitation and a higher incidence of autism. While the results of this study are interesting, it needs to be put into proper context. Also of note, the authors had presented early results from this data previously.

Correlation is not Causation

This type of study is a correlational study, which means it asks whether or not there is a statistical correlation between two variables – in this case the rate of autism and the amount of precipitation.  This type of data is extremely useful to medical science, but it has known limitations, which can be summarized by the statement that correlation is not causation.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Why we don’t prescribe bark for cancer

My valued colleague, Dr. Antonio Baines, recently invited me to speak for his graduate course in Toxicology.  Dr. Baines’ course is one of the most highly-regarded graduate classes at North Carolina Central University for M.S. students in Biology and Pharmaceutical Sciences.  Antonio asked that I discuss the pharmacology and toxicology of herbal and non-botanical dietary supplements but pretty much gave me free reign as to the mechanism by which I would do so.

In the past, I have often introduced herbal supplements to students who already know a bit about drug and toxicant action by taking the example of the anticancer drug, taxol (Note: Little “t” taxol was the name originally given to this chemical by its co-discovers but the corporate sponsor used it as a registered trademark for the brand name, big “t” Taxol, and the USAN proposed the use of the cumbersome paclitaxel as the generic name.).  As I noted in my previous post, taxol is an anticancer drug isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia, and was the first compound shown to kill cancer cells by promoting microtubule polymerization (and preventing depolymerization).

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Circumcision: What Does Science Say?

Some people think circumcision is mutilation; others want one even if they don’t know what it is. When I was working in an Air Force hospital emergency room one night, a young airman came in requesting a circumcision. I asked him why he wanted one. He said a couple of his friends had had it done, and he’d heard it was a good idea, and he was going to be getting out of the Air Force pretty soon and wanted to have it done while Uncle Sam would still foot the bill. I examined him: he had a neatly circumcised penis without so much as a hint of any foreskin remnant. I’ve always wondered what he thought we were going to cut off.

The subject of circumcision evokes strong emotions. Some people think of neonatal circumcision as a religious duty or a valuable preventive health measure; others think it is the epitome of child abuse. I have no strong feelings either way. I’m not sure what I would have decided if I’d had sons; fortunately my children were both daughters so I didn’t have to decide. I’m going to try to stand back and look at the scientific evidence objectively. What are the medical benefits and risks of circumcision? (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Surgical Procedures

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“Urban Zen” and homeopathy at Beth Israel Medical Center, or: Dr. Gorski destroys his chances of ever being invited to join the faculty at BIMC or the Albert Einstein College of Medicine

I guess I never really wanted to work in Manhattan anyway. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

I mean, why on earth would I want to? What’s the attraction? Living in the heart of it all, all those shows and all those amazing cultural activities, all those world-class restaurants? Being close to Boston, Philadelphia, and other cool East Coast cities, which are all just a quick Acela train ride away? Who cares about those things, anyway?

Apparently I don’t, because I’m about to destroy my chances of working at what has been considered one of the premiere academic hospitals in New York City, specifically Beth Israel Medical Center, an academic affiliate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. It’s possible for me to have been ignored when I first included the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and its affliated Continuum Center for Health & Healing in my roll call of shame as a medical center that has not just added woo to its offerings, but actively embraced it. At the time I originally discovered it, though, its offerings seemed limited to fairly mild woo, the usual stuff like acupuncture, what I like to call “gateway modalities” that centers embrace first because they’re relatively tame and commonplace. All too commonly, though, dabbling in gateway modalities leads to the “hard stuff,” outright quackery with zero scientific basis like homeopathy, reflexology, and craniosacral therapy. Such is the pathway an academic medical center follows when it degenerates from science-based medicine to what Dr. R. W. famously dubbed “quackademic medicine,” usually driven by a few famous true believers, which, alas, is exactly what happened at fearless leader Steve Novella’s institution of Yale, thanks to Dr. David Katz and his “more fluid concept of evidence.”

In any case, last week, I realized that I’ve been completely neglecting the aforementioned roll call of shame. Perusing it, I now realize that it’s been over five months since I did a significant update to it. You just know that, given the rate of infiltration of unscientific medical practices into medical academia as seemingly respectable treatment modalities that there must be at least several new additions to this roll of shame. Alas, even today, having been shamed myself by the realization of my failure to keep the list updated, I’m not going to do the full update and revamping that the Roll Call of Quackademic Medicine cries out for. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t do a piecemeal addition here and there. That doesn’t mean I can’t point out new additions as they pop up, even if it takes me a while to find the time to give the list the facelift it cries out for. It doesn’t mean I can’t call out hospitals like Beth Israel when they fall into woo, especially when they dive into quackademic medicine in a big way for cancer patients.
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Posted in: Cancer, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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Another take on those “50 Facts About Homeopathy”

You may recall that a week ago fellow SBM blogger Mark Crislip did a truly amusing takedown of an article by a homeopath purporting to provide us with 50 Facts About Homeopathy that supposedly validate the efficacy of this most amazing form of quackery. Not surprisingly, others wanted to get in on the fun, given how outrageously ridiculous and riddled with numerous logical fallacies the homeopath’s article was. Indeed, that’s why prominent Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch, whose website The Millenium Project is always an entertaining read (except that, at only once every one or two weeks, its updates are too infrequent) couldn’t resist getting in on the action with his answer to A Homeopathic Challenge.

Unfortunately, by the time he hit “Fact” #25 Peter was laughing so hard that, try as he might, he just couldn’t continue with his deconstruction. He does, however, promise to finish up the list in a future installment.

Posted in: Homeopathy, Humor

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