One of the more frustrating things about practitioners who promote unsafe and scientifically discredited medical practices is their tendency to change their message for different audiences. One day they’ll tell you that they espouse only evidence-based practices and the next they’ll be promoting snake oil. This double talk is hard to combat, since to disprove them one would essentially have to provide a video of their contradictory remarks.
One day I participated in a series of business meetings with a CAM practitioner in attendance (he was an MD who graduated from UCSF). During one meeting he boldly proclaimed his support of scientifically rigorous research, and praised the Cochrane Collaborative’s efforts to provide systematic reviews of the evidence (or lack thereof) for various practices.
Several hours later we were sitting together in another meeting in which I objected to the publication of a consumer article that would assist parents of children with autism in finding a DAN! practitioner who could provide chelation therapy to their children. I explained that there was no evidence for the efficacy of such treatments, and plenty of evidence for their harm (including the death of at least one child that I’d read about in the news). I suggested that an article describing these dangers might be in order, but that an article encouraging chelation use for autism was simply unethical and I would not allow it to be published.
Instead of agreeing with me, the CAM MD suggested that I was being “narrow” and that I should allow consumers to “explore all their options.” I was stunned. This was the same person who had just said that he fully supported scientific inquiry. So I asked him how he could say that he supported evidence-based medicine, and then turn around and ignore evidence at will – even at the peril of human life.
His response dumbfounded me:
“I am just as comfortable practicing within an evidence-based framework as I am outside it.”
After my fairly recent awakening from shruggieness (i.e. a condition in which one is largely unaware of or uninterested in CAM) I decided to discuss my concerns about pseudoscience with my friends. One particular friend is a nationally recognized physician who believes in the importance of accurate health information and the promotion of science. However, he sees no urgent need to warn people against snake oil, and so long as it’s correctly labeled he doesn’t seem to mind it co-existing with scientific alternatives.
My friend and I had dinner a few weeks ago, and our conversation was both animated and disappointing. I somehow felt inadequate in conveying my objections (both ethical and scientific) to the promotion of pseudoscience. My best explanations were met with cheerful rebuttals, and while not intellectually convincing to me, those retorts satisfied my friend just fine. I guess the bottom line was that he was more interested in maintaining his position than reconsidering it… and so it left me feeling rather frustrated and a little sad.
In this space we’ve read about the efforts of “alternative” practitioners such as naturopaths to gain the moniker “primary care provider”. I’ve been wondering a bit about this. I’m a primary care physician. Specialists in internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine provide the bulk of primary care in the U.S. They attend a 4-year medical school, complete a 3-4 year residency, take their specialty board, and then work as experts in the screening, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of common diseases.
So, what I’d like to do is give you a typical scenario from an internal medicine or family medicine practice. It’s a simple one, one you might see on Step II of the USMLE boards or on a shelf exam for an internal medicine rotation. I’d like to offer alternative practioners, especially naturopaths, an opportunity to show how they would approach the clinical scenario so that we can see what kind of primary care they provide.
Yes, every patient and every situation is different, but there are some general ways to approach health and disease based on the evidence.
More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
~ Woody Allen
No good deed goes unpunished.
The website whatstheharm.net is a depressing recitation of the harm that humans do to themselves and others from participating in various forms of nonsense in the attempt to do good. It my backfire, and instead pain and death result.
I would bet that most practitioners of medical woo are true believers. They do not intend to harm people, and believe they are doing good for their patients. Certainly the consumers of alternative therapies intend to have good benefits from their use of sCAM modalities. Most want to get better, and do not intend to hurt themselves or others.
Unfortunately, actions always have unintended consequences. Sometimes the harm is directly to the patient. Sometimes the harm in indirect, with collateral damage to people or the environment. My hospital system has an extensive recycling program to handle the huge amounts of waste generated by the need to insure that all manner of materials are sterile. Patients in isolation consume large amounts of paper and plastic to keep infection confined. My hospitals actively look for ways to decrease their environmental impact and carbon footprint and still deliver high quality medical care. Legacy Health System, where I work, is an award winning leader recycling medical waste, which is a lot more difficult to dispose of than the pop cans and paper bags in your house. Hopefully the trash in your house is not covered with pus, blood and other potentially hazardous medical waste. We try to be good global citizens.
I wonder if some branches of the alternative medical industrial complex are so environmentally conscious.
It is not uncommon for Science Based Medicine to receive complaints about the tone of our writing. Some people feel that it is indelicate to use the “q” word (for the uninitiated, “q” is for “quack”) when describing practitioners who promote disproven therapies with jubilant fervor. Others believe it unkind to lump “well meaning” alternative medicine experts in with those who are engaged in overtly illegal activities.
We are all affected by the tension between wanting to call a spade a spade and respecting our cultural need to be polite. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this inner conflict is Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog. As the name implies, Orac is both thoughtful and brutally honest – he expresses our communal reticence to make waves, but follows up with a reasoned hostility that is quite understandable, given the circumstances described in each post. Respectful Insolence is fun to read because it is educational, persuasive, and expressive – and it captures how many of us feel about various forms of hucksterism. However, snake oil salesmen and their sympathizers are unlikely to enjoy the blog.
Here at Science Based Medicine, readers find a wide range of expression with a common commitment to science and reason. Just as physicians have different practice styles (some are more nurturing in temperament, others offer “tough love”) so too do we authors vary in tone. For those readers who favor one style over another – I hope you’ll find the voice that suits you and return regularly for more. Please don’t assume that one particular post is representative of the entire blog, and please don’t be offended by the legitimate exasperation of writers who have suffered through decades of observing swindlers swindle.
Last week I discussed the book Healing, Hype, or Harm? edited by Edzard Ernst. I was particularly struck by one of the essays in that book: “Healing but not Curing” by Bruce Charlton, MD, a reader in evolutionary psychiatry at the Department of Psychology of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Charlton proposes a new way of looking at CAM. He describes three common attitudes:
- CAM does good and should be integrated with orthodox medicine.
- CAM is worthless and should be discarded.
- CAM may or may not do good and this should be decided using science.
He rejects all three. In his view,
- Alternative therapies do good.
- From a strictly medical perspective they are worthless.
- They should not be integrated with orthodox medicine.
- Because they are explained non-scientifically, they cannot be evaluated using the criteria of medical science.
He suggests that alternative therapies be regarded as spiritual practices. They are about making people feel better (‘healing’) not about mending their dysfunctional brains and bodies (‘curing’). (more…)
Publishing one excellent book is an accomplishment; publishing two in one year is a truly outstanding achievement. In 2008 Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh published a landmark book Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine. I reviewed it on this blog last summer. It is particularly important since Ernst is a former advocate for CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) who was able to objectively look at the scientific evidence and realize that it doesn’t support most CAM methods.
Before the year was out, Ernst had published another book, Healing, Hype or Harm? A Critical Analysis of Complementary or Alternative Medicine. It is a compilation of essays on various general and specific topics in CAM. Ernst is the editor; he and 15 other authors have contributed, mostly from the UK but also including Asbjorn Hrobjartsson from the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark (the author of a landmark paper on placebos), Canadian health activist Terry Polevoy, and our own inimitable James (The Amaz!ng) Randi.
In the preface, Ernst says,
Our book tries to look behind the various smoke screens that tend to obstruct our vision and often prevent us from understanding the truth. The authors of this volume have very different backgrounds and views but they are all well-informed critics who do not dismiss CAM lightly. If they disapprove of certain aspects, they do so for well-argued reasons. (more…)
I saw a patient last week who was self referred. He had been seeing a DC/ND for a variety of symptoms that turned out to be asthma. Not that the DC/ND made that diagnosis. His DC/ND diagnosed him with an infection, based on live blood analysis, and offered the patient a colonic detox as a cure. My patient thought he should get a second opinion before he submitted to a cleansing enema, always a good policy
Live blood analysis to diagnose an infection. I had never heard of the technique, but thanks to the google and the interwebs, I was soon immersed in the field.
In live blood analysis, the “physician” takes a drop of the patients blood and examines it under a high power phase contrast or a darkfield microscope. Changes in the constituents of the blood are noted and linked to a variety of ills.
It is an impressive and expensive system: microscopes and various support equipment start at around $5000 (3). However, live blood analysis has the opportunity to be lucrative in the right hands as the patient often gets weekly analysis to see how the interventions (usually supplements sold by the blood analyst) are working. Evidently in the hands of a skilled snake oil salesman, an income of $100,000 a year to more can be generated (8).
Live blood analysis is one of these alternative methodologies that has a hint of legitimacy that is extrapolated far out of proportion to its validity.
Much nonsense has been written in the guise of longevity medicine. In Fantastic Voyage, Ray Kurzweil explains why he takes 250 pills every day and spends one day a week at a clinic getting IV vitamins, chelation, and acupuncture. He is convinced this regimen will keep him alive long enough for science to figure out how to keep him alive forever. In Healthy Aging, Andrew Weil chips in with his own mixture of science and magic. I pointed out the flaws in their reasoning in a review for Skeptic magazine – available online. There are many other popular books that promise to tell you how to live longer. Most of them amount to little more than speculation based on extrapolations from animal studies, in vitro studies, and odd non-clinical facts.
There simply is no evidence that any intervention will extend the human life span. The most promising idea from animal studies, severe calorie restriction, is not practical or palatable and would make adequate nutrition difficult. We don’t know how to prolong human life to, say, 130 years; but we do know how to prevent a number of diseases from causing premature demise at 60 or 70. That’s what real “longevity medicine” means.
To counteract all the belief-based and speculation-based “longevity medicine,” we needed a science-based longevity book. And now we have it. Carl Bartecchi, MD and Robert W. Schrier, MD have written a book entitled Living Healthier and Longer – What Works, What Doesn’t. The price is right – it is available online for free download. (more…)
I recently watched a special news report about John McCain leading the charge towards making legislative earmarks illegal. The Economist defines earmarks this way:
Earmarks, for the uninitiated, are spending projects that are directly requested by individual members of Congress and are not subject to competitive bidding.
Most Americans are rightly upset about the practice of slipping pet projects into larger, well-vetted, and consensus-built legislative initiatives. They know instinctively that it’s morally wrong to sneak in personal favors and appropriate tax payer dollars to special interest groups without allowing others to weigh in. I certainly hope that McCain and his peers will succeed in discontinuing this corrupt practice.
Coincidentally, just after I watched this news report about earmarks, I went online to catch up on my blog reading. The first post I encountered made reference to an opinion piece written by Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, Dean Ornish, and Rustum Roy in the Wall Street Journal. Chopra et al. were asking Americans to redouble their efforts to adopt healthy lifestyles (including wholesome diets and regular physical activity) as a means to promote good health and avoid disease. At the end of the article they slipped in a plea for President-elect Obama to consider integrating alternative medicine practices (which included everything from healthy diet to meditation and acupuncture) into a government-sponsored approach to health.