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My Woo: A Confession

It’s a case of mind over matter. I have no mind but it doesn’t seem to matter.
— George Burns

I should be working on my taxes. Instead, I’ll dwell on the other, more pleasant, inevitability.

Its been a bad couple of months for death. Everyone dies, and people often die of infection, but the flu season has been busy and with the MRSA lurking in the community, I have seen too many young die who should have otherwise survived their influenza.

I spend most of my professional day working in an acute care hospital, and most people in the hospital die of something. They die when their heart or lungs or liver or brain or some combination sustain more damage than can be compensated for. People live within fairly narrow operational parameters and when those parameters are exceeded for any length of time, they die. It is never a surprise when people die due to organ failure past the point of return or support. That is the cause of death in most of the patients I see.

Sometimes, and not very often, people die of nothing in particular. They just die. You get an autopsy, and there does not appear to be any single event that caused the death, nor does the sum of the underlying diseases seem to have lead to death. Usually it is the advanced elderly who just die. There reaches a point where the organism shuts down. I once had a patient die as I walked into the room on rounds. He looked at me and then died. He had many medical problems, but none that should have killed him, and his blood work on the day of death was normal and his autopsy had no clue as to why he died. Creepy. I like to have a definitive cause of death, but I do not always get one.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Airborne Settles Case On False Advertising

The story of Airborne – a popular supplement marketed as an “herbal health formula that boosts your immune system to help your body combat germs” – is representative of what is wrong with the supplement industry and how it is regulated in the US. Recently the company that sells Airborne – Airborne Health, Inc – agreed to pay $23.3 million to refund consumers who purchased the product (if they have proof of purchase). This was to settle a class-action law suit brought by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and others claiming false advertising. In the settlement the company did not admit any wrongdoing. While this can be viewed as a minor victory for science-based medicine, it actually highlights the many deficiencies in the system.

For background, Airborne was launched in 1999 as a supplement designed to ward off the common cold. It has been extremely successful, due largely to its slick packaging, a clever slogan that it was developed by a school teacher, and promotion by Oprah Winfrey. The Airborne brand of products has expanded, including pixie powder for children, Airborne seasonal, Airborne Jr., Airborne on-the-go, and others. Advertising urged users to take Airborne at the first sign of a cold or as a preventive treatment if about to enter a germ-filled area, like an airplane. They also cited a “scientific” study that demonstrated Airborne is effective.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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The Business of Being Born

One of our readers asked for a critique of the movie “The Business of Being Born.” I guess my sex and specialty make me the best qualified to comment. I delivered over 200 babies as a family physician. I had two babies of my own (at age 37 and 39), one with intervention (forceps) and one 9-pounder who almost “fell” out before the obstetrician was ready.

“The Business of Being Born” is a movie about midwives, home births, and hospital births in America. It’s a sort of kinder, gentler “Sicko” with onscreen births, gooey, bloody newborns and fat naked women. The message of the movie is that for an uncomplicated pregnancy, natural home births with midwives are better and safer than medicalized hospital births with obstetricians. It’s strong on sound bites, emotional appeals, and superficial arguments, but weak on substance, depth, and scientific evidence for its claims.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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When impressive science fails to impress patients

One of the greatest challenges in medicine can sometimes be to convince patients that the results of scientific and medical research apply to them, or, at the very least, to explain how such results apply. One of the reasons that medicine based not on science or evidence fluorishes is because it can be so hard to explain to patients why a particular intervention is viewed as effective. My co-blogger Steve Novella wrote about some of the fallibilities of human perception that lead to perceiving correlations and treatment effectiveness where there are none. R. Robert Bausell wrote about the same thing in his recent book Snake Oil Science. While it is undoubtedly true that people tend to pay more attention to anecdotes than to studies and statistics, there is also another reason why doctors often have problems convincing patients of the value of health interventions, and that’s the difference in perception and how we value different kinds of evidence.

A couple of years ago, I came across an article that explains this gulf between how those of us trying to practice science- and evidence-based medicine perceive the world and how most human beings not trained in medicine or science perceive it. The article, which was published in 2006 in the New York Times and written by Dr. Abigail Zuker, proposed one reason why this might be, beginning with a discussion with her mother in which she tries to convince her of the benefit of exercise, even in the elderly, a concept that her mother would have none of and dismissed contemptuously:

“Studies,” she says, dripping scorn. “Don’t give me studies. Look at Tee. Look at all the exercise she did. She never stopped exercising. Look what happened to her.”

End of discussion. Tee, her old friend and contemporary, took physical fitness seriously, and wound up bedbound in a nursing home, felled by osteoporosis and strokes, while my mother, who has not broken a sweat in the last 60 years, still totters around on ever-thinning pins. So much for exercise. So much for studies. So much for modern clinical medicine, based on the randomized allocation of treatment and placebo. All that beautiful science, stymied by the single, incontrovertible, inescapable image of Tee, the one who exercised but grew hunched and crippled anyway.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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The Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo #2

You Can’t Foo’ Stu with Woo!

A Spitzerian (“pointed”) analysis

Last week’s inaugural game elicited several amusing and penetrating analyses, including that of the hands-down Gold Medal Winner, Stu. His was the first entry, introduced in a concise and alliterative imperative, and was both hilarious and timely. It implied most of the points discussed by others. This distinctive combination has moved me to grant Stu a legacy here at the W^5. In the future there may be, undoubtedly no more than once in a very long while, entries that live up to the Soaring Standard of Stu®. If so, they will be Duly Acknowledged. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Humor, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics

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Where Are We Going?

Where is it all headed? Medicine on another threshold. Allow me to present several previously unconnected news articles that illuminate the serious problem we face in today’s increasingly scientifically rootless world.

Who are scientific medicine’s friends; on whom can we rely for support of reason and common sense, unbiased approaches to funding, unbiased efficacy evaluation, fair law enforcement, and a return to the logical world of decades ago? The private insurance industry is taking it in the gut, while Pharma receives the repeated jabs. Corrupt administrations run off with hundreds of millions, inadequately punished for the degree of misbehavior. Academicians, no longer squeaky clean, unwilling to keep house on big-money grant recipients while tolerating massive private consulting fees. Schools infiltrated by mindless relativism satisfy the lowest academic levels despite the revolutionary changes in biology and massive knowledge base new MDs have to apply.

Just in 2 weeks a number of seemingly unrelated developments in the news got one to thinkin’, …there aren’t any to trust anymore. The government agencies are just as bad. Start with the FDA. Steve Barrett’s Consumer Health Digest Quackwatch.com has been trying to reassess the status of one or more quackery proponents and practitioners. One of his routes is the examination of FDA records of enforcement and warning letters to violators. From CHD of 3/11/08:

FDA “hides” old warning letters. The FDA Web site has made several changes that greatly decrease the visibility of warning letters about products and safety violations. Letters issued before January 2007 have been moved into a new directory so that all incoming links to them from other sites have been broken. This directory is also coded so that search engines cannot index its contents. Searching for warning letters on the FDA site is difficult because (a) the newer and older letters have to be searched separately, (b) the search page for pre-2007 pages in not easy to find. (c) letters are moved to the archive folder at irregular intervals, and (d) many of the older letters are in PDF format, which means that they will be found only if the searcher uses specific keywords. The agency as become extremely slow in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. In August 2005, Dr. Barrett asked for a document related to a warning letter. If one exists, finding it would take only a few minutes. Barrett’s Congressman has asked twice for the document, and FDA staff members have phoned Barrett four times during the past year to find out whether he still wants it. But it still has not come. Bloomberg News has reported that in May 2007, the agency had 20,365 unfilled requests, including 1,924 that were more than three years old and that the the number of workers filling requests has been cut even though the backlog had been steadily rising. [Blum J. (more…)

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Be Wary of Stem Cell Pseudoscience

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century electricity and magnetism were cutting edge science, full of excitement and unknown potential. Capitalizing on this excitement, Franz Anton Mesmer captured the imagination of the European intelligentsia with his bogus claims of animal magnetism. At the turning of the next century radioactivity was the new and fascinating scientific discovery, and this lead to a market for radioactive tonics good for a multitude of complaints, or just for extra energy. A few decades later radio waves were the latest healing craze.

Cutting edge science is cool and exciting, it evokes the promise of the future and the public has learned to expect that the latest gee whiz science appears like magic. Its newness also virtually guarantees that the public at large will mostly not understand the science or its true implications. This is a situation ripe for exploitation.

Today one medical technology that does possess great promise but is not yet ready for prime time is stem cell therapy. Legitimate scientists involved in stem cell research are almost giddy about the possibilities. Early applications are possibly just around the corner, and only time will tell what the full potential of this technology is. But right now there are no legitimate stem cell therapies outside of research protocols. It is therefore not surprising that the con artists of today are exploiting the tremendous hype of stem cells.

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Posted in: Health Fraud

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Thoughts on Neuroplasticity

I recently read a fascinating book, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. He describes case histories and research indicating that the brain is far more malleable than we once thought. We used to think each function was localized to a small area of the brain and if you lost that area of brain tissue the function was gone forever. We once thought you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. Now we know better. 

Learning a new skill actually changes the structure and function of the brain, even into old age. If you exercise one finger, the area of the brain devoted to that finger enlarges. The old concept of dedicated brain areas for specific functions no longer holds. Areas of the cortex that normally process vision can learn to process totally different inputs such as hearing. This is what happens with blind people: their hearing skills are enhanced when new neural connections for hearing invade the disused visual cortex. They may not actually have better hearing acuity, but they have learned to pay more attention to auditory input and to use it to build up a representation of the world around them.

One of the more intriguing experiments he describes was in monkeys. When sensory input nerves to one arm were severed, the monkey stopped using the arm, even though the motor nerves were intact. When the good arm was put in a sling, the monkey started using the impaired arm again.  When both arms were deprived of sensory input, the monkey used both arms.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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The ultimate in “integrative medicine”: Integrating the unscientific into the medical school curriculum

For the second week in a row I find myself throwing out the original post that I had planned on doing in favor of a different topic. The reason this week is, quite simply, having read Dr. Atwood’s excellent two part post Misleading Language: The Common Currency of “CAM” Characterizations (Part I; Part II). I don’t at this time intend to expand on what Dr. Atwood said, although I may do so at one future time. What caught my attention in his lengthy deconstruction was his segment on the “woo-ification” of health care, which very much echoed my post a while back in which I lamented the creeping infiltration of non-science-based modalities into academic medical centers, as well as the credulous teaching of such modalities in medical schools. What I wanted to explore was just how far this might go and what the end result might be. It turns out that we are already witnessing an experiment in just such a thing.

About a year and a half ago, I first became aware of just how far this infiltration of unscientific “medicine” has infiltrated academia when I saw this brochure published by the Georgetown University School of Medicine. If you’re scientifically inclined, as I am, it ought to make you shudder. Reading this brochure, I truly have to worry whether woo really is the future of American medicine, as has been suggested in some quarters. Certainly, if other medical schools start following Georgetown’s lead, it will be. Not content to offer so-called complementary and alternative medicine (“CAM”) modalities as part of electives that interested students can take if they are so inclined, Georgetown is taking the next logical step that I feared: It’s dedicating significant educational resources and time to teaching “CAM” in its mandatory general medical curriculum, where every student has to learn it:
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Misleading Language: the Common Currency of “CAM” Characterizations Part II

Background

I promised readers the “Advanced Course” for this week, which undoubtedly has you shaking in your boots. Fear not: you’ve already had a taste of advanced, subtle, misleading “CAM” language, and most of you probably “got” it. That was R. Barker Bausell’s analysis of how homeopathy is “hypothesized to work.” In the interest of civility, let me reiterate that I don’t think of Bausell as a horrible person or an ignorant boor for having written that statement. Rather, I think of him as having been so steeped in the de rigueur “CAM” language distortions of the 1990s that he is largely unaware of their insidious power. I suspect too that he, like most of us who grew up when schools no longer stressed the rigors of English composition, has an underdeveloped sense of the relation between the craft of writing and the integrity of its content. That doesn’t excuse him from writing honest prose, of course.

Last week’s post cited blatant language distortions of “CAM”—euphemisms, slogans, and outright falsehoods—and some that were more subtle: question-begging, misrepresentation, and derogation. It would require a semester’s worth of seminars to delve into the overlapping categories of misleading “CAM” language, but here we can consider a few. Then, perhaps, we’ll engage in an amusing diversion—more about that at the end of this post. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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