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A temporary reprieve from legislative madness

While doctor visits for influenza-like illnesses seem to be trending downward again, and ”swine flu” is becoming old news, I’d like to draw attention to an H1N1 story that has received very little coverage by the mainstream media.

Doctors in several states can now protect their most vulnerable patients from the H1N1 virus without worrying about breaking the law. In order to save lives, several states have announced emergency waivers of their own inane public health laws, which ban the use of thimerosal-containing vaccines for pregnant women and young children.

Legislators in California, New York, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Delaware, and Washington state have enacted these science-ignoring laws in response to pressures from the anti-vaccine lobby and fear-struck constituents. Except for minor differences, each state’s law is essentially the same, so I will focus on the one from my state of New York.

New York State Public Health Law §2112 became effective on July 1, 2008. It prohibits the administration of vaccines containing more than trace amounts of thimerosal to woman who know they are pregnant, and to children under the age of 3. The term “trace amounts” is defined by this law as 0.625 micrograms of mercury per 0.25 mL dose of influenza vaccine for children under 3, or 0.5 micrograms per 0.5 mL dose of all other vaccines for children under 3 and pregnant women. Because thimerosal (and thus, mercury) exists only in multi-dose vials of the influenza vaccines (both seasonal and novel H1N1), this law really only applies to these vaccines. The mercury concentration of the influenza vaccines is 25 micrograms per 0.5 mL, which therefore makes their use illegal. Unfortunately, the only form of the H1N1 vaccine initially distributed, and that could be used for young children and pregnant women, was the thimerosal-containing form. The thimerosal-free vaccine was the last to ship, and in low supply, and the nasal spray is a live-virus vaccine, not approved for use in pregnancy or children under 2. That meant, without a waiver of the thimerosal ban, these groups could not be vaccinated.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Talking Science With Patient Advocates

Laurie Edwards has a rare chronic disease called primary ciliary dyskinesia. Her symptoms are quite similar to those associated with cystic fibrosis, and her young life has been punctuated by numerous hospitalizations, physical limitations and the occasional near-death experience. She is a remarkably upbeat woman, and attributes her self confidence and optimistic outlook to her loving friends and family.

Laurie is part of the patient blogging community online. She reads physician blogs with interest, and wants to protect others like her from snake oil and misinformation. She recently interviewed me about my pro-science views for a new book that she’s writing. People like Laurie play a critical role in accurate health communication, and I welcome the chance to discuss science-based medicine with them. Here are some excerpts from our chat: (more…)

Posted in: General, Science and the Media

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All Medicines Are Poison!

That’s the title of a new book  by Melvin H. Kirschner, M.D. When I first saw the title, I expected a polemic against conventional medicine. The first line of the Preface reassured me: “Everything we do has a risk-benefit ratio.” Dr. Kirschner took the title from his first pharmacology lecture in medical school. The professor said “I am here to teach you how to poison people.” After a pause, he added, “without killing them, of course.” 

He meant that any medicine that has effects has side effects, that the poison is in the dose, and that we must weigh the benefits of any treatment against the risks. Dr. Kirschner has no beef with scientific medicine. He does have a lot of other beefs, mainly with the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and alternative medicine. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Pharmaceuticals

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The Need for Transparency

A recent editorial in PLOS Medicine discusses the need for transparency in the medical literature, specifically with regard to comparative effectiveness research (CER). The editorial makes many excellent points, but also puts into clear relief the double standard that is consciously being fabricated by proponents of non-science-based medicine.

I wrote previously about another editorial that took a very different approach. Speaking for The Kings Fund, Professor Dame Carol Black said.

“The challenge is to develop methods of research that allow us to assess the value of an approach that seeks to integrate the physical intervention, the personal context in which it is given, and non-specific effects that together comprise a particular therapy.”

The editorial essentially defended the use of CER and other forms of evidence to bolster the evidence base for so-called CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) in order to promote its use.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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IVF and CAM Use

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to broader acceptance of the need for a consistent scientific basis for medical interventions is the attitude that worthless treatments are harmless. I often have the experience, after reviewing the evidence showing lack of efficacy for a specific intervention, of getting the head-tilt and shrug along with some variation of the dismissive attitude,  “Well, if people feel better, then what’s the harm?” In my opinion, ethics and intellectual honesty indicate that we have to do better than that.

The “what’s the harm” refrain is so tired and overused that it prompted a website by that name, documenting direct harm caused by unscientific treatment modalities. This is a helpful reminder that any intervention that actually does something (has biological activity) must also contain some risks. But this site also has significant limitations. First, it is anecdotal. But also it emphasizes direct harm, while the indirect harm of unscientific methods (for example by delaying definitive treatment) likely vastly outweighs the direct harm. However, indirect harm is extremely difficult to quantify.

Studies looking at the net clinical effects of using or relying upon unscientific methods is therefore desirable. Recently Danish researchers have published one such study:  Use of complementary and alternative medicines associated with a 30% lower ongoing pregnancy/live birth rate during 12 months of fertility treatment.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Functional Medicine III

Let’s look at one example.

A unknown number of Functional Medicine adherents broadcast call-in programs on radio stations. One FM physician, a Dr. “D” in Northern California graduated from UC Davis School of Medicine (Central California’s Sacramento Valley.) I find her program fascinating, requiring some attentive listening.

Dr. D’s recommendations for people’s complaints and conditions are often complex, a chimera of standard explanations and therapies, but painted with a variety of views that are anything but standard. The problem I found was that some of each answer was rational – especially the logic of her differential diagnosis – but suddenly spun out into space with unfamiliar methods or some recognizable as one component or another of sectarianism. Some answers had no relationship to the problem at hand, but seemed to be plucked out of a firmament of independent ideas, theories, ideologies, and personal anecdotes – a medical Separate Reality.

One can be carried along by an answer that sounds on surface reasonable because of the confidence and the delivery’s vocal tone. Her voice is medium-low, sort of a mezzo or contralto. It’s a voice ideal for advice; confidence oozes. Some of her separate reality recommendations she precedes with a biochemical or physiological explanation, so the shifting from standard to “separate reality” grids goes so smoothly, the usual recognizable red flags may not spring up.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Incorporating Placebos into Mainstream Medicine

Alternative medicine by definition is medicine that has not been shown to work any better than placebo. Patients think they are helped by alternative medicine. Placebos, by definition, do “please” patients. We would all like to please our patients, but we don’t want to lie to them. Is there a compromise? Is there a way we can ethically elicit the same placebo response that alternative theorists elicit by telling their patients fairy tales about qi, subluxations, or the memory of water?

Psychiatrist Morgan Levy has written a book entitled Placebo Medicine. It’s available free online. In it, he makes an intriguing case for incorporating the best alternative medicine placebo treatments into mainstream medicine.

In a light, entertaining style, he covers the placebo effect, suggestibility, and the foibles of the human thought processes that allow us to believe a treatment works when it doesn’t.

“Thinking like a human” is not a logical way to think but it is not a stupid way to think either. You could say that our thinking is intelligently illogical. Millions of years of evolution did not result in humans that think like a computer. It is precisely because we think in an intelligently illogical way that our predecessors were able to survive… [by acting on quick assumptions rather than waiting for comprehensive, definitive data]… We have evolved to survive, not to play chess.

He offers evidence from scientific studies indicating that belief in a treatment and the power of suggestion can have actual physiologic consequences such as production of endorphins or changes on brain imaging studies. He spices his narrative with colorful stories, including anecdotes from his own sex life and an impassioned plea (tongue in cheek?) for everyone to drink coffee for its proven benefits. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Medical Ethics

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Risks Associated With Complementary And Alternative Medicine (CAM): A Brief Overview

Having grown up on a dairy farm, I am one of the least likely people to object to the deification of yogurt. However, as a critical thinker, I cannot help but resist the idea (promoted by some health sites) that probiotics are a reasonable alternative to chemotherapy in the treatment of colon cancer. And there are many other equally unhelpful claims being made all the time. Fish oil for ALS anyone?

What amazes me about the “cherry yoga” camp (as my friend Bob Stern likes to call it), is that they aggressively market CAM as “harmless” and “natural.” They point to the warning labels and informed consents associated with science-based medicines as evidence that the alternative must be safer. In reality, many alternative practices are less effective, and can carry serious risks (usually undisclosed to the patient). For your interest, I’ve gathered some examples of risks associated with common alternative practices that have been described by the CDC and in the medical literature:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy

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Double-Talk And Paternalism

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.”
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Posted in: General, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Differences Of Opinion

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.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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