Introduction: An unexpected e-mail arrives
One of the consequences of the growing traffic and prominence of this blog over the last few years is that people who would otherwise have probably ignored what I or my partners in blogging write now sometimes actually take notice. Nearly a decade ago, long before I joined this blog as a founding blogger, if I wrote a post criticizing something that a prominent academic said, it was highly unlikely that that person would even become aware of it, much less bother to respond to whatever my criticism was. I was, quite simply, beneath their notice, sometimes happily, sometimes unhappily.
It appears that those days might be over. Last week Dr. Daniel Kopans, a prominent Harvard radiologist and well-known long-time defender of screening mammography, sent me a rather unhappy e-mail complaining about my “attack” on him on this blog, a charge that he repeated in a subsequent e-mail. Before I publish his initial e-mail verbatim (with his permission), I would like to point out that, while it’s true that I did criticize some of Dr. Kopans’ statements rather harshly in my post about the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS), even characterizing one statement as a “howler,” I would hardly characterize what I wrote as an “attack.” That to me tends to imply a personal attack. Using Dr. Kopans’ apparent definition, what he has said and written about investigators like those running the CNBSS, as documented in my post, about H. Gilbert Welch, who published a large study in 2012 estimating the extent of overdiagnosis due to mammography, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the group that in 2009 suggested changing guidelines for routine screening mammography in asymptomatic women to begin at age 50 instead of age 40, would appear to also qualify as “attacks.”
Be that as it may, I also wondered why Dr. Kopans hadn’t noticed my CNBSS post until more than three months after it had originally appeared. Then, the day after I received Dr. Kopans’ e-mail, my Google Alert on mammography popped up an article in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Kopans entitled “Mammograms Save Lives: Criticism of breast-cancer screenings is more about rationing than rationality.” That’s when I guessed that someone probably had either posted or e-mailed Dr. Kopans a link to my previous post in response to that article. Given the confluence of events, I think it’s a perfect time to discuss both Dr. Kopans’ e-mail and his article, because they cover many of the same issues. (more…)
By now, regular SBM readers should be aware of the Choosing Wisely initiative. Just in case, Choosing Wisely is a campaign developed by the ABIM Foundation to bring together experts from a variety of medical specialties in order to identify common practices that should be questioned by patients and providers, if not outright discontinued. Their ultimate goal was not to establish treatment guidelines or dictate care, but to foster discussion. As I’ve written about in a prior post on the overuse of antibiotics in pediatrics, it doesn’t appear to have caught on. I routinely ask colleagues, residents and students if they are aware of it, and am frequently disappointed by their response.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a list of five questionable practices back in February of 2013 and I loved it. All five are important:
- Stop treating viruses with antibiotics
- Stop prescribing and recommending cough and cold medicines for young children
- Stop routine use of CT scans for minor head injuries
- Stop routine use of neuroimaging for simple febrile seizures
- Stop routine use of CT scans for abdominal pain
Imagine a retail pharmacy where some of the medicines on the shelves have been replaced with similar-looking packages that contain no active ingredients at all. There is no easy way to distinguish between the real and the fake.
Another section of the store offers a number of remedies with fantastic claims, such as “boosting” the immune system, “detoxifying” the body, or “cleansing” you of microscopic Candida. They look sciencey, unless you realize that they treat imaginary medical conditions.
A corner of the store offers unpurified drugs supplied as tinctures and teas. The active ingredients aren’t known, and the batch-to-batch consistency of the product is unclear. The store will suggest products for you based on your symptoms.
Walk past the enormous wall of vitamins and other supplements and you’ll find a nutritionist who will tell you what products you should be taking. You’ll also find a weight loss section. From a science-based perspective, this shouldn’t even exist, given no product has been shown to offer any meaningful benefit. But there are dozens of products for sale.
At the back of the store you’ll finally find the pharmacist. A sign on the counter offers blood- and saliva-based tests for food “intolerance” and adrenal “fatigue”, claiming to test for medical conditions that actually don’t exist or lack an evidence base. The pharmacy also offers a large compounding practice, advertising what it calls “personalized” approaches to hormone replacement with “bioidentical” hormones.
Welcome to the “integrative” pharmacy.
You may not see all these features in your local drug store, but they’re coming: claims of a new “integrative” way to provide health care that is changing the face of retail pharmacy. Unfortunately, it’s harkening back to the era of patent medicines and snake oil. It’s not good for the pharmacists and the profession of pharmacy, and it’s even worse for patients. (more…)
Myths tend to be persistent and require periodic maintenance debunking. The anti-vaccine movement arguably can credit its recent increase in effect to successfully spreading fears that vaccines in general, and particularly either the MMR vaccine (mumps, measles, and rubella) or the vaccine preservative thimerosal, are linked to autism. This claim was never based on legitimate science, and over the last 15 years has been overwhelmingly repudiated by multiple independent lines of scientific evidence.
It is easier to spread fears than it is to reassure anxious parents with abstract scientific data, but still we must try. It also seems that giving people information is not an effective way to change their opinions or their behavior. But at the very least I hope to better inform those who are already on board with the science-based approach, and perhaps we can reach the occasional person on the fence who is simply misinformed and open to changing their mind.
A new meta-analysis seems like a good opportunity to remind the public that vaccines are safe and effective, and that they are not linked to neurodevelopmental disorders. The study is: “Vaccines are not associated with autism: An evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies,” by Taylor, Swerdfeger and Eslick, is published in the journal Vaccine. They found: (more…)
One size rarely fits all. Most medical knowledge is derived from studying groups of subjects, subjects who may be different in some way from the individual who walks into the doctor’s office. Basing medicine only on randomized controlled studies can lead to over-simplified “cookbook” medicine. A good clinician interprets study results and puts them into context, considering the whole patient and using clinical judgment to apply current scientific knowledge appropriately to the individual.
CAM practitioners claim to be providing individualized treatments. Homeopaths look up symptoms like “dreams of robbers,” “sensation of coldness in the heart,” and “chills between 9 and 11 AM” in their books, and naturopaths quiz patients in great depth about their habits and preferences; but they don’t have a plausible rationale for interpreting the information they gather. And they have not been able to demonstrate better patient outcomes from using that information.
A new concept, “precision medicine,” was recently featured in UW Medicine, the alumni magazine of my alma mater, the University of Washington School of Medicine. Precision medicine strives to provide truly individualized care based on good science. It identifies the individual variations in people that make a difference in our ability to diagnose and treat accurately. Peter Byers, MD, director of the new Center for Precision Diagnostics at the University of Washington, calls it “the coolest part of medicine.” (more…)
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2
You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on its tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig.
You can paint a turd red, but it’s still a turd.
There’s a colloquial phrase commonly used to describe an effort to sell or promote something that is so inherently awful or at least so flawed as to be unsalvageable without either a radical rethinking or such a major overhaul that it would be impractical or impossible to do: Polishing a turd. In this, advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) have been very successful. Mark Crislip, in his usual inimitable fashion, just reminded us why CAM is a turd that needs polishing. Unfortunately, on Friday, I learned that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine unveiled a proposal to help it be more efficient in polishing the turd that is CAM through the clever use of language, and it wants your feedback. There were lots of other things that happened over the last few days that tempted me to write about them that will likely have to appear over at my not-so-secret other blog, but this one caught my attention and held it, given that it goes to the very heart of the deceptive use of language that is at the heart of giving CAM the appearance of legitimacy. In this specific case, NCCAM wants a new name. Dr. Briggs wants to rename NCCAM the National Center for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health (NCRCI). (I have no idea why the abbreviation of the proposed new center name isn’t NCRCIH.) Here’s Dr. Briggs explaining the rationale for the proposal and urging feedback by June 6 at http://nccam.nih.gov/about/offices/od/comments. I urge you to watch the whole video, or at least read the transcript:
Thus does Dr. Briggs propose polishing the turd that is NCCAM.
There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking. JAMA
Just just because there are flaws in aircraft design that doesn’t mean flying carpets exist. Ben Goldacre
Wiser heads than I have commented on “Invitation to a Dialogue: Alternative Therapies” in The New York Times. So why add my two cents? Partly because The New York Times wanted brief responses and I don’t do brief. Partly because I write for me; nothing focuses the mind like putting electrons to LCD, except, perhaps, a hanging. Partly we do need a dialog, just not of the kind suggested by the writer. And partly, life has been so busy of late I needed a topic that required no research. (more…)
Legislative Alchemy is the process by which credulous state legislators turn practitioners of pseudoscience into state-licensed health care professionals. In addition to unleashing quackery such as homeopathy, colonic irrigation, moxibustion, reiki, cranial sacral therapy and the detection and correction of subluxations on the public, these practice acts typically give chiropractors, naturopaths and acupuncturists the freedom of being governed by their own regulatory boards, to which the practitioners themselves are appointed. The boards, in turn, write the administrative rules governing practitioners and handle public complaints about their services. In the worst cases, legislatures simply hand out the privilege of practicing medicine to pretty much anyone.
State practice acts also establish the education and training standards for practitioners by requiring graduation from their accredited schools. Here the federal government lends a hand, by turning accreditation over to private agencies run by the practitioners themselves. The federal government also supports the schools by giving them taxpayer-funded student loans and research money. (more…)
A recent opinion piece in The New York Times is an invitation to a dialogue on so-called alternative therapies, written by James Gordon. Gordon directs the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and was chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy appointed by President Bill Clinton. The piece, unfortunately, represents many of the common misconceptions about mainstream medicine and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine).
Even more distressing, the Affordable Care Act will likely reinforce current practice, which dictates surgical and pharmacological interventions that can be expensive, inappropriate, burdened by side effects and, often, ineffective.
His piece is doomed right from the start. Current practice does not “dictate” drugs and surgery, no matter how often CAM proponents claim that it does. This is simply a straw man designed by CAM advocates to create a niche for their brand. Mainstream medicine uses treatments that are backed by sufficient plausibility and evidence, regardless of modality. At least, this is what mainstream medicine strives for. We acknowledge the implementation is imperfect, and improving the standard is part of what we strive for at SBM. (more…)
Gary Taubes has written two books explaining why people get fat and why a low-carb diet is the solution to preventing and treating obesity. He didn’t like what I had to say about his books on this blog back in 2011. I was not the only one to criticize. Another reviewer accused him of “abandon[ing] journalistic and scientific integrity in place of observational data, straw men and logical fallacy.” He says he agrees with Taubes’ premises but that his “arguments made me cringe,” and he goes into considerable detail to explain why. His analysis is worth reading.
Rather than engaging in the Comments section, Taubes complained to me in a somewhat offensive personal e-mail, saying I had failed to understand what he wrote. Recently he e-mailed me again, condescendingly suggesting that I might understand his arguments better if I read an article he wrote last year for the British Medical Journal. I read it, and confirmed that I had understood perfectly well the first time around and that it was Gary Taubes who didn’t understand my criticisms. I pointed out some omissions and inconsistencies, but my major criticisms boiled down to two:
- The clinical evidence isn’t yet sufficient to convincingly prove his thesis. (He himself admitted this.)
- He strongly recommended that everyone adopt a low-carb diet, essentially insisting that we act on insufficient evidence. And this was after he had devoted whole chapters of his books to demonizing the low-fat diet advocates for doing exactly that: acting on insufficient evidence.