Part of the mission of SBM is to continually prod discussion and examination of the relationship between science and medicine, with special attention on those beliefs and movements within medicine that we feel run counter to science and good medical practice. Chief among them is so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) – although proponents are constantly tweaking the branding, for convenience I will simply refer to it as CAM.
Within academia I have found that CAM is promoted largely below the radar, with the deliberate absence of public debate and discussion. I have been told this directly, and that the reason is to avoid controversy. This stance assumes that CAM is a good thing and that any controversy would be unjustified, perhaps the result of bigotry rather than reason. It’s sad to see how successful this campaign has been, even among my fellow academics and scientists who should know better.
The reality is that CAM is fatally flawed in both philosophy and practice, and the claims of CAM proponents wither under direct light. I take some small solace in the observation that CAM is starting to be the victim of its own success – growing awareness of CAM is shedding some inevitable light on what it actually is. Further, because CAM proponents are constantly trying to bend and even break the rules of science, this forces a close examination of what those rules should actually be, how they work, and their strengths and weaknesses.
While cleaning out some old files, I was delighted to find an article I had clipped and saved 35 years ago: a “Sounding Boards” article from the January 25, 1979 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. It was written by Joseph E. Hardison, MD, from the Emory University School of Medicine; it addresses the reasons doctors order unnecessary tests, and its title is “To Be Complete.” Today we have many more tests that can be ordered inappropriately and the article is even more pertinent and deserves to be re-cycled. He says,
When challenged and asked to defend their reasons for ordering or performing unnecessary tests and procedures, the reasons given usually fall under one of the following excuses…
It’s been a while since I wrote a substantive post for this blog about the Houston cancer doctor and Polish expat Stanislaw Burzynski who claims to have a fantastic treatment for cancer that blows away conventional treatment for cancers that are currently incurable. The time has come—and not for good reasons. The last time was primarily just a post announcing my article about Burzynski being published in Skeptical Inquirer. When last we saw Stanislaw Burzynski on this blog, it was a post that I hated to write, in which I noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had caved to patient and legislator pressure and allowed compassionate use exemptions (otherwise known as single patient INDs) to continue. The catch? Cynically, the FDA put a condition on its decision, specifically that no doctor associated with Burzynski nor Burzynski himself could administer the antineoplastons. This set off a mad scramble among Burzynski patients wanting ANPs to find a doctor willing to do all the paperwork and deal with Burzynski to administer ANPs. The family of one patient, McKenzie Lowe, managed to succeed.
It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost three years since I first started taking an interest in Burzynski. Three long years, but that’s less than one-twelfth the time that Burzynski has been actually been administering an unproven cancer treatment known as antineoplastons (ANPs), a drug that has not been FDA-approved, to patients, which he began doing in 1977. Yes, back when Burzynski got started administering ANPs to patients, I was just entering high school, the Internet as we know it did not exist yet (just a much smaller precursor), and disco ruled the music charts. It’s even harder for me to believe, given the way that Burzynski abuses clinical trial ethics and science, that I hadn’t paid much attention to him much earlier in my blogging career. After all, I’m a cancer surgeon, and here’s been this guy treating patients with advanced brain cancers using peptides that, according to Burzynski, do so much better against what are now incurable tumors than standard of care while charging huge sums of money to patients on “clinical trials.” It might be a cliché to quote the Dead this way, but what a long, strange trip it’s been. Because there has been a major development in this saga whose context you need to know to understand, I’m going to do a brief recap. Long-time regulars, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs, as they just try to bring people up to date and include a lot of links for background, or, if you haven’t already, read this summary of Burzynski’s history published earlier this year in Skeptical Inquirer. Newbies, listen up. Read the next two paragraphs. You need to know this to understand why I’m so unhappy. (more…)
For the first time, ScienceBasedMedicine.org has reached a million page views in a month, thanks to a surge in social media buzz. We’ve come close before, but finally pushed comfortably past that major milestone earlier this week. As of today, SBM served 1,051,943 pages to 649,315 visitors in the last thirty days. These are mainstream-scale numbers: SBM is now competing effectively with many popular websites about not-so-science-based medicine.
What articles are attracting so much attention? The traffic surge is powered by several popular recent posts, but mostly two of Dr. Gorski’s, about the Food Babe and John Oliver skewering Dr. Oz. Dr. Novella’s Food Fears post isn’t far behind. Other respectable slices of the traffic pie chart include Dr. Hall’s perpetually popular Isagenix post, and Scott Gavura’s coffee enema post — which also happen to be the two busiest SBM pages of all time, with Aspartame — Truth vs Fiction in third place.
SBM’s inaugural post was on January 1, 2008. Unfortunately, we have no traffic data until the middle of 2013. Since then, we’ve seen a doubling in average monthly traffic. It’s been a team effort, of course, but Facebook and Twitter have been huge factors in that steady growth. Bobby Hannum manages those accounts for us, and somehow manages to post and tweet for us almost every single day while going to medical school. If you haven’t already, please like and follow.
Next stop: a million views per week…
~ Paul Ingraham, Assistant Editor
I suspect there is more published about traditional Chinese medicine than any other SCAM. Here are some of the recent curiosities of TCM.
The little girls laughed about the germs, because they didn’t believe in them; but they believed about the disease, because they’d seen that happen. Spirits caused it, everyone knew that. Spirits and bad luck. Jack had not said the right prayers.
- Oryx and Crake
I long ago gave up on the idea that there are a finite number of pseudo-medical treatments. Anything a human can imagine will probably be used as a SCAM intervention. I remain amazed at the permutations that occur in the pseudo-medical world, not unlike the mix and match bioforms in Oryx and Crake.
Not everyone knows basic anatomy and physiology that allows for understanding of disease. Instead, people often rely on metaphor and magic for their understanding, especially in the world of pseudo-medicine. Sympathetic magic lies at the heart of many SCAMs. (more…)
The state of New York allows religious and medical (but not philosophical) exemptions from school vaccination mandates. New York City has a policy of excluding unvaccinated schoolchildren from classes when there is an outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease reported in a particular school. Two sets of parents whose children had religious exemptions sued New York City and the state in federal court when their children were temporarily excluded from school under the policy, in some cases for up to a month. In other words, they were demanding that their unvaccinated children be allowed to attend even though there was an outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease at the school.
These cases were consolidated with another filed by parents, the Checks, who claimed their child had been improperly denied a religious exemption. The parents had applied for a medical exemption, which was denied, as well as a religious exemption, which was granted, but then revoked. (The record is somewhat confusing on this sequence of events, but that sequence is not relevant to our discussion.) The unvaccinated child was ultimately sent to a private school, even though she should have been excluded from admission under New York City law there as well.
Last week, a federal judge dismissed all three cases (they had been consolidated and assigned to one judge) in an opinion holding that neither the students’ nor the parents’ constitutional rights were violated, including their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. The plaintiffs have filed an appeal. (more…)
A new Cornell University study examines the origins of food fears, and possible remedies. It’s a survey of 1,008 mothers asking about foods they avoid and why.
Food fears are a common topic on SBM, likely for several reasons. Humans have an inherent emotion of disgust, which is likely an adaptation to help avoid contaminated or spoiled food. In our modern society this reflex can be tricky, because we do not always have control over the chain of events that leads to food on our plates. Other people grow the food, transport it, process it, and perhaps even cook it.
Modern food technology can also involve many scary sounding substances and unusual processes. As the saying goes, you may not want to know how the sausage is made, as long as the end result is wholesome.
This leads to a second reason for modern food fears – we are living in an age of increasing transparency, partly brought about by the dramatic increase in access to information on the internet. I think ultimately this is a good thing – people are seeing how the sausage is made, which makes it more difficult to hide shady practices. This introduces a new problem, however. If you’re going to inspect the process of making sausage, then you need to know something about sausage-making. (more…)
This post is dedicated to two people who are frequent commenters on SBM, Stephen S. Rodrigues and Peter Moran. Rodrigues is an MD/acupuncturist who tries to persuade us that acupuncture is effective. Moran is a retired surgeon who objects to insulting language and thinks more can be accomplished by trying to better understand why people turn to CAM and by explaining the facts and reasons politely and dispassionately. He has claimed that he “could probably help [Rodrigues] understand better why his views are not having much impact.”
I recently wrote about supplements for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). There is evidence that the supplement mixture tested in the AREDS trial slows the progression of moderate to advanced disease. That is based on a good scientific study, although the study has not been replicated and there is reason to interpret its results with caution. Dr. Rodrigues commented with a link to a website advertising the Santa Fe acupuncture protocol, saying that he uses the method in his office and it helps some of his patients with AMD. The website claims that the Santa Fe acupuncture protocol will reverse vision loss from macular degeneration in 4 days or your money back. That is a bold claim. I will try to explain, as politely as possible, why I reject the claim, and why the evidence for it is unacceptable. (more…)
As regular readers of this blog know, Dr. Mehmet Oz had a very, very bad day last week, in which he received a major tongue lashing from Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) for the scientifically unsupported and irresponsible hyperbole he dishes out day after day on his syndicated daytime television show. Personally, I was tempted to pile on myself, but had to content myself with enjoying a couple of posts from a super secret blog in the run-up to the hearing (inviting Dr. Oz to testify is “like asking Al Capone to testify about U.S. tax policy or Stanislaw Burzynski about clinical trial design and ethics”), right after the hearing, and looking at the fallout from the hearing. I had even thought of asking my “friend” to combine the last two into an SBM-worthy post, but by the time that thought had occurred to me, the moment had passed.
One of the best takes I’ve seen on the whole “Oz-fest” last week comes from John Oliver on his HBO show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. It’s a really long segment that takes up the last half of his show and features—don’t ask why—George R. R. Martin and a tap dancing Steve Buscemi. It’s hilariously spot on:
Most SBM readers will enjoy it. I promise. Oliver even correctly identifies Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) as tools of the supplement industry and explains why dietary supplements in the U.S. are largely unregulated and the FDA and FTC have such limited powers to do anything about them preemptively.