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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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Placebo Therapies: Are They Ethical?

Is it ethical to overstate the efficacy of a treatment option, if it might lead to a patient’s enhanced experience of that treatment? Your response to this question may reveal the degree to which you favor Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Let me explain.

As far as I can tell, no CAM treatment has been proven effective beyond placebo. (If you’re not convinced of this, I suggest you take a look at Barker Bausell’s book on the subject.) That means that treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, Reiki, energy healing, Traditional Chinese Medicine (such as cupping), and others (like “liver flushes”) perform about as well as placebos (inert alternatives) in head-to-head studies. Therefore, the effects of these treatments cannot be explained by inherent mechanisms of action, but rather the mind’s perception of their value. In essence, the majority of CAM treatments are likely to be placebo therapies, with different levels of associated ritual.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that CAM therapies are in fact placebos – the question then becomes, is it ethical to prescribe placebos to patients?  It seems that many U.S. physicians believe that it is not appropriate to overstate potential therapeutic benefits to patients. In fact, the AMA strictly prohibits such a practice:

“Physicians may use [a] placebo for diagnosis or treatment only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.”

Moreover, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes:

“Outside the setting of clinical trials, there is no justification for the use of placebos.”

However, there is some wavering on the absolute contraindication of placebos. A recent survey conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic asked physicians if it was permissible to give a dextrose tablet to a non-diabetic patient with fibromyalgia if that tablet was shown to be superior to no treatment in a clinical trial. In this case 62% of respondents said that it would be acceptable to give the pill.

The authors note:

“Before 1960, administration of inert substances to promote placebo effects or to satisfy patients’ expectations of receiving a prescribed treatment was commonplace in medical practice. With the development of effective pharmaceutical interventions and the increased emphasis on informed consent, the use of placebo treatments in clinical care has been widely criticized. Prescribing a placebo, it is claimed, involves deception and therefore violates patients’ autonomy and informed consent. Advocates of placebo treatments argue that promoting the placebo effect might be one of the most effective treatments available for many chronic conditions and can be accomplished without deception.”

How do you feel about placebos? Are they a legitimate option in some cases, or a violation of patient autonomy and informed consent?
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Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Healing But Not Curing

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…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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When Further Research Is NOT Warranted: The “Wisdom of Crowds” Fallacy

Most scientific research studies have at least one thing in common: the conclusion section ends with, “further research is warranted.” I’d say it’s about as common as the “talk to your doctor” disclaimer in TV ads for pharmaceutical products. And in a way, they both serve the same purpose. They’re a “CYA” move.

What does “further research is warranted” mean in plain English? I think it can be roughly translated: “My research study is not of the size or scope to fully explain all the phenomena described in this article. Therefore, draw conclusions beyond the data and study methods at your own risk. And yeah, my work is important and cool – so people should study it further.”

Of course, the first two sentences are reasonable – we should always remember not to draw conclusions beyond the information provided by the data we’ve collected (even though that’s about as challenging as getting a beagle not to eat a table scrap in an empty room). The real problem is the third sentence. Is the research promising enough to require further investment? How are we to know if further research is indeed warranted? I would argue that it should not be based solely on the subjective opinions of the researchers nor the popularity of the research topic to the general public. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): Your tax dollars hard at work

What’s an advocate of evidence- and science-based medicine to think about the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, better known by its abbrevation NCCAM? As I’ve pointed out before, I used to be somewhat of a supporter of NCCAM. I really did, back when I was more naïve and idealistic. Indeed, as I mentioned before, when I first read Wally Sampson’s article Why NCCAM should be defunded, I thought it a bit too strident and even rather close-minded. At the time, I thought that the best way to separate the wheat from the chaff was to apply the scientific method to the various “CAM” modalities and let the chips fall where they may.

Two developments over the last several years have led me to sour on NCCAM and move towards an opinion more like Dr. Sampson’s. First, after its doubling from FY 1998-2003, the NIH budget stopped growing. In fact, adjusting for inflation, the NIH budget is now contracting. NCCAM’s yearly budget remains in the range of $121 million a year, for well over $1 billion spent since its inception as the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1993. Its yearly budget contains enough money to fund around 75 to 100 new five year R01 grants, give or take. In tight budgetary times my view is that it is a grossly irresponsible use of taxpayer money not to prioritize funding for projects that have hypotheses behind them that have a reasonable chance of being true. Scarce NIH funds should not be for projects that have as their basis hypotheses that are outlandishly implausible from a scientific standpoint. Second, I’ve seen over the last few years how NCCAM is not only funding research (most of which is of the sort that wouldn’t stand a chance in a study section from other Institutes or Centers)) but it’s funding training programs. Indeed, that was the core complaint against NCCAM: that it facilitates and promotes the infiltration of nonscience- and nonevidence-based treatments falling under the rubric of so-called “complementary and alternative” or “integrative” medicine into academic medicine. However, NCCAM cannot do otherwise, given its mission:

  • Explore complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science.
  • Train complementary and alternative medicine researchers.
  • Disseminate authoritative information to the public and professionals.

If, in fact, NCCAM actually did devote itself solely to “rigorous science” with regard to “alternative” healing practices, I would have much less problem with it than I do. However, it broadly interprets the second and third parts of its mission. For example, it views part of its mission as promotion, rather than study: “Supporting integration of proven CAM therapies. Our research helps the public and health professionals understand which CAM therapies have been proven to be safe and effective.” This would be all well and good if NCCAM had as yet actually proven any CAM therapies to be at least effective, but it has not. Worse, it has not even managed to demonstrate any of them to be ineffective, either, thus leading to endless studies of modalities that either do not work or at the very least would have marginal efficacy.

Still, I thought; All questions of promotion of CAM modalities aside, least there’s the science. Surely, under the auspices of the NIH, NCCAM must be funding some high-quality studies into CAM modalities that couldn’t be done any other way. That thought died when NCCAM announced last week the studies that it had funded during FY 2007.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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