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Amber Waves of Woo

As a pediatrician I have an opportunity to observe a wide variety of unusual and sometimes alarming parental efforts meant to help children through illness or keep them well. I have recently noticed one particular intervention that seems to be becoming more prevalent, at least in my practice. I’ve begun to see more and more infants sporting Baltic amber teething necklaces. These consist of multiple small beads of amber on a string that is worn around a baby’s neck, and are supposed to relieve the discomfort of teething. Before I had any idea what these necklaces were for or how they were supposed to work, my first reaction was to inform these parents of the dangers of necklaces or anything placed around an infant’s or young child’s neck. Strangulation is a known cause of accidental injury and death in children, and pediatricians are trained to discuss this as part of the routine anticipatory guidance we give to parents. In addition, we strongly advise against giving infants or young children any small items that could be accidentally aspirated, such as the beads found in a necklace of this sort. But I was equally surprised to learn that these necklaces are not intended for babies to chew or gum. Instead, they are supposed to ease a baby’s teething discomfort simply by lying against the skin.

I will not discuss teething here, or the many myths that surround it; that was well covered in a previous post. I will reiterate that there is little-to-no evidence that the majority of concerns parents have about teething are actually due to teething, including fever and diarrhea. The irritability associated with teething also tends to wax and wane for only several days before and after the emergence of a tooth. But let’s assume for the moment that these necklaces actually work to ease the discomfort of teething, and whatever other problems parents tend to associate with the long period of time during which infants and young children develop their teeth. Assuming these necklaces work as recounted in the glowing testimonials on countless websites and parent blogs, how do they produce their dramatic results?
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals

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Osteopathy in the NICU: False Claims and False Dichotomies

I would like to preface this post by stating that I have worked with many DOs (Doctors of Osteopathy), and I have helped train many pediatric residents with DO degrees. I have found no difference in the overall quality of the training these students have received, and some of the very best clinicians I have ever worked with have been DOs. I would never prejudice my assessment or opinion of a physician based on whether they have an MD or a DO after their name.

Now, on to the discussion at hand.

I recently stumbled upon an article entitled, “Effect of osteopathic manipulative treatment on length of stay in a population of preterm infants: a randomized controlled trial”. There is nothing particularly exciting or interesting about this study, as there have been many published on the use of osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT) in children. There aren’t that many RCTs, however, and this particular one, although published in the open-access BioMed Central Pediatrics (impact factor 1.98), was chosen to be included in AAP Grand Rounds. AAP Grand Rounds is a publication put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to help pediatricians “Stay current and save time with monthly critical, evidence-based summaries of clinical content from nearly 100 journals.” Because the AAP found this important enough for mention in this widely read publication, with a distribution of 19,000 (source: AAP, 2014), I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at it. I am also interested in the very odd existence of the two, distinct paths to becoming a physician in this country, osteopathic and traditional medical school training. The distinction between the two is rarely discussed, even within the halls of academia or in our health care centers. That’s not to say that the topic isn’t discussed at all (in fact it was highlighted very recently right here on SBM), it has just remained a somewhat politically incorrect subject, sliding mostly under the radar. Having worked with and trained pediatricians with osteopathic degrees, I can tell you that discussions about this are considered taboo. This is primarily because osteopathic physicians have become mainstreamed over time (see below), and discussing the validity of the existence of their “specialness” is an awkward proposition. After taking a look at the paper in question, I’ll address this issue some more as I think it deserves additional attention.

Effect of osteopathic manipulative treatment on length of stay in a population of preterm infants: a randomized controlled trial.

This was a single-blinded RCT conducted at Santo Spirito Hospital in Pescara, Italy to explore whether OMT could shorten the length of stay among premature infants in their neonatal ICU (NICU). Secondary outcomes studied were the differences in daily weight gain and total cost of the NICU stay.

I’ll discuss the methods in a moment, but first let’s review the results.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials

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Philosophy Meets Medicine

Note: This was written as a book review for Skeptical Inquirer magazine and will be published in its Jan/Feb 2014 issue.

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Medicine is chock-full of philosophy and doesn’t know it.  Mario Bunge, a philosopher, physicist, and CSI (Center for Skeptical Inquiry) fellow, wants to bring philosophy and medicine together for mutual benefit. He has written a book full of insight and wisdom, Medical Philosophy: Conceptual Issues in Medicine.

Whether doctors recognize it or not, medicine is firmly based on the philosophical principles of materialism, systemism, realism, scientism, and humanism. Bunge explains that:

Without materialism, both diseases and therapies would be taken to be purely spiritual.

Without systemism, every disease would be attributed to an independent module.

Without realism, diseases would be viewed as either imaginary or as social flaws.

Without scientism, either nihilism or dogmatism would prevail, and all the achievements of biomedical research of the last 500 years would be consigned to oblivion.

Without humanism, all medical practice would be mercenary, and there would be no public health care. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Answering Our Critics, Part 2 of 2: What’s the Harm?

Last week I posted a list of 30 rebuttals to many of the recurrent criticisms that are made by people who don’t like what we say on SBM. I thought #30 deserved its own post; this is it. At the end, I’ve added a few items to the original list.

What’s the harm in people trying CAM? Science-based medicine has been criticized for being too rigid and intolerant. Why do we insist on randomized placebo-controlled trials to prove that a treatment is safe and effective? Isn’t it enough that patients tell us they feel better? Isn’t that what we all want, for our patients to feel better? Even if the treatment only works as a placebo, isn’t that a good thing? What’s the harm in that?

The albuterol/placebo study

I would argue that we don’t just want our patients to think they are better, we want them to actually be better. A study that illustrates that principle has been discussed on this blog before, here and here.

A group of patients using an effective albuterol asthma inhaler was compared to 2 placebo groups (a placebo inhaler group and a sham acupuncture group), and to a group that got no treatment at all. Patients reported the same relief of symptoms with each of the two placebo controls as with the albuterol inhaler; all three groups reported feeling significantly better than the no-treatment group. It could be argued that placebos are an effective treatment for the subjective symptoms of asthma. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Answering Our Critics, Part 1 of 2

Some people don’t like what we have to say on Science-Based Medicine. Some attack specific points while others attack our whole approach. Every mention of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) elicits protests in the Comments section from “true believer” users and practitioners of CAM. Every mention of a treatment that has been disproven or has not been properly tested elicits testimonials from people who claim to have experienced miraculous benefits from that treatment. In previous articles I have compiled the criticisms of what I wrote about Protandim and Isagenix. It’s instructive to read through them. We welcome rational and substantive criticism, but most of these comments are neither.

Our critics keep bringing up the same old memes, and it occurred to me that rather than try to answer them each time, it might be useful to list those criticisms and answer them here. In future, when the same points are raised, we could save time and effort by linking to this page and citing the reference number. I know this list is not comprehensive, and I hope our readers will point out anything I’ve omitted. Here are some of the criticisms we keep hearing:

1. Big Pharma is paying you to promote their products and discredit CAM.

No it isn’t. We are not Pharma shills. We are not paid anything for writing this blog. We do not get money from pharmaceutical companies. We do not accept gifts from drug companies. We do not get kickbacks for prescribing certain drugs. We have no incentive to favor drugs over other treatments. Incidentally, critics who prefer natural remedies to pharmaceuticals should note that many CAM diet supplements are sold by subsidiaries of Big Pharma. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Trojan Horse called Integrative Medicine arrives at another medical school

Trojan Rabbit

Medicine is a collaborative practice. Hospitals are the best example, where dozens of different health professionals work cooperatively, sharing responsibilities for patient care. Teamwork is essential, and that’s why health professionals obtain a large part of their education on the job, in teaching (academic) hospitals. The only way that all of these different professions are able to work together effectively is that their foundations are based on an important, yet simple, principle. All of us have education and training grounded in basic scientific principles of medicine. Biochemistry, pharmacology, physiology – we all work from within the same framework. As a pharmacist, my role might include working with physicians and nurses to manage and monitor medication use. A team approach is only possible when you’re working from the same playbook, and with the same aim. And in medicine, that playbook is science.

That’s why “integrative” medicine frightens me so much. Integrative medicine is a tactic embedding complementary and alternative medical practices into conventional medical care. Imagine “integrating” a practitioner into the health system that doesn’t accept germ theory. Or basic disease definitions. Or the effectiveness of vaccines. Or even basic biochemistry – perhaps they believe in treatments that restore the body’s “vital force” or manipulate some sort of “energy fields”. Instead of relying on objective signs and symptoms, they base treatments on pre-scientific beliefs, long discarded from medicine. There may be entirely different treatment goals, which are potentially antagonistic to the scientific standard. Imagine a hospital or academic setting where this occurs, and the potential impact on the quality of care that is delivered. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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The difference between science-based medicine and CAM

“Alternative medicine,” so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or, as it’s become fashionable to call it, “integrative medicine” is a set of medical practices that are far more based on belief than science. As Mark Crislip so pointedly reminded us last week, CAM is far more akin to religion than science-based medicine (SBM). However, as I’ve discussed more times than I can remember over the years, both here and at my not-so-super-secret-other blog, CAM practitioners and advocates, despite practicing what is in reality mostly pseudoscience-based medicine, crave the imprimatur that science can provide, the respect that science has. That is why, no matter how scientifically implausible the treatment, CAM practitioners try to tart it up with science. I say “tart it up” because they aren’t really providing a scientific basis for their favored quackery. In reality, what they are doing is choosing science-y words and using them as explanations without actually demonstrating that these words have anything to do with how their favored CAM works.

A more important fundamental difference between CAM and real medicine is that CAM practices are not rejected based on evidence. Basically, they never go away. Take homeopathy, for example. (Please!) It’s the ultimate chameleon. Even 160 years ago, it was obvious from a scientific point of view that homeopathy was nonsense and that diluting something doesn’t make it stronger. When it became undeniable that this was the case, through the power of actually knowing Avogadro’s number, homeopaths were undeterred. They concocted amazing explanations of how homeopathy “works” by claiming that water has “memory.” It supposedly “remembers” the substances with which it’s been in contact and transmits that “information” to the patient. No one’s ever been able to explain to me why transmitting the “information” from a supposed memory of water is better than the information from the real drug or substance itself, but that’s just my old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, scientific nature being old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, and scientific. Then, of course, there’s the term “quantum,” which has been so widely abused by Deepak Chopra, his acolytes, and the CAM community in general, while the new CAM buzzword these days to explain why quackery “works” is epigenetics. Basically, whenever a proponent of alternative medicine uses the word “epigenetics” or “quantum” to explain how an alternative medicine treatment “works,” what he really means is, “It’s magic.” This is a near-universal truth, and even the most superficial probing of such justifications will virtually always reveal magical thinking combined with an utter ignorance of the science of quantum mechanics or epigenetics.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia

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What’s in your supplement?

When you pick up a bottle of supplements, should you trust what the label says?  While there is the perception that supplements are effective and inherently safe, there are good reasons to be skeptical. Few supplements are backed by good evidence that show they work as claimed. The risks of supplements are often not well understood. And importantly, the entire process of manufacturing, distributing, and marketing supplements is subject to a completely different set of rules than for drugs.  These products may sit on pharmacy shelves, side-by-side with bottles of Tylenol, but they are held to significantly lower safety and efficacy standards. So while the number of products for sale has grown dramatically, so has the challenge to identify supplements that are truly safe and effective. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Journal of Clinical Oncology editorial: “Compelling” evidence acupuncture “may be” effective for cancer related fatigue

Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) is a high impact journal (JIF > 16)  that advertises itself as a “must read” for oncologists. Some cutting edge RCTs evaluating chemo and hormonal therapies have appeared there. But a past blog post gave dramatic examples of pseudoscience and plain nonsense to be found in JCO concerning psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and, increasingly, integrative medicine and even integrations of integrative medicine and PNI. The prestige of JCO has made it a major focus for efforts to secure respectability and third-party payments for CAM treatments by promoting their scientific status and effectiveness.

Once articles are published in JCO, authors can escape critical commentary by simply refusing to respond, taking advantage of an editorial policy that requires a response in order for critical commentaries to be published. An author’s refusal to respond means criticism cannot be published.

Some of the most outrageous incursions of woo science into JCO are accompanied by editorials that enjoy further relaxation of any editorial restraint  and peer review. Accompanying editorials are a form of privileged access publishing, often written by reviewers who have strongly recommended the article for publication, and having their own PNI and CAM studies to promote with citation in JCO.

Because of strict space limitations, controversial statements can simply be declared, rather than elaborated in arguments in which holes could be poked. A faux authority is created. Once claims make it into JCO, their sources are forgotten and only the appearance a “must read,” high impact journal is remembered. A shoddy form of scholarship becomes possible in which JCO can be cited for statements that would be recognized as ridiculous if accompanied by a citation of the origin in a CAM journal. And what readers track down and examine original sources for numbered citations, anyway?
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Don’t call CAM “cost-effective” unless it’s actually effective

Your health insurance plan probably covers anti-inflammatory drugs. But does it cover acupuncture treatments? Should it? Which health services deliver good value for money? Lest you think the debate is limited to the United States (which is an outlier when it comes to health spending), even countries with publicly-run healthcare systems are scrutinizing spending. Devoting dollars to one area (say, hospitals) is effectively a decision not to spend on something else, (perhaps public health programs). All systems, be they public or private, allocate funds in ways to spend money in the most efficient way possible. Thoughtful decisions require a consideration of both benefits and costs.

One of the consistent positions put forward by contributors to this blog is that all health interventions should be evaluated based on the same evidence standard. From this perspective, there is no distinct basket of products and services which are labelled “alternative”, “complementary” or more recently “integrative”. There are only treatments and interventions which have been evaluated to be effective, and those that have not. The idea that these two categories should both be considered valid approaches is a testament to promoters of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), who, unable to meet the scientific standard, have argued (largely successfully) for different standards and special consideration — be it product regulation (e.g., supplements) or practitioner regulation.

Yet promoters of CAM seek the imprimatur of legitimacy conferred by the tools of science. And in an environment of economic restraint in health spending, they further recognize that showing economic value of CAM is important. Consequently they use the tools of economics to argue a perspective, rather than answer a question. And that’s the case with a recent paper I noticed was being touted by alternative medicine practitioners. Entitled, Are complementary therapies and integrative care cost-effective? A systematic review of economic evaluations, it attempts to summarize economic evaluations conducted on CAM treatments. Why a systematic review? One of the more effective tools for evaluating health outcomes, a systematic review seeks to analyze all published (and unpublished) information on a focused question, using a standardized, transparent approach to evidence analysis. When done well, systematic reviews can sift through thousands of clinical trials to answer focused questions in ways that are less biased than cherry-picking individual studies. The Cochrane Review’s systematic reviews form one of the more respected sources of objective information (with some caveats) on the efficacy of different health interventions. So there’s been interest in applying the techniques of systematic reviews to questions of economics, where both costs and effects must be measured. Economic evaluations at their core seek to measure the “bang for the buck” of different health interventions. The most accurate economic analyses are built into prospective clinical trials. These studies collect real-world costs and patient consequences, and then allow an accurate evaluation of value-for-money. These types of analyses are rare, however. Most economic evaluations involve modelling (a little to a lot) where health effects and related costs are estimated, to arrive at a calculation of value. Then there’s a discussion of whether that value calculation is “cost-effective”. It’s little wonder that many health professionals look suspiciously at economic analyses: the models are complicated and involve so many variables with subjective inputs that it can be difficult to sort out what the real effects are. Not surprisingly, most economic analyses suggest treatments are cost-effective. Before diving into the study, let’s consider the approach:

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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