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Has science-based medicine already lost to pseudoscience?

After writing Saturday’s 5,000-word magnum opus about misguided “right to try” bills that are proliferating in state legislatures like so much kudzu, I thought I’d try something a bit different—and more concise. Fear not. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to become Harriet Hall as a writer, because no one does concise and insightful as well as she does, but I do on occasion want to try my hand being less logorrheic. I’ll probably fail, but at least I can pat myself on the back for trying. If I succeed, though, it’ll only make me better. I hope. I also realize that I just made it harder by blathering on for a whole paragraph before getting to the point, a habit of mine that infuriates some readers and amuses others who find my way of winding towards the point at least somewhat entertaining.

Thus endeth the nauseatingly—but briefer than usual!—self-deprecating navel gazing and beginneth the post.

The opportunity appeared to me in the form of an article that popped up in my feed on Medscape entitled, Do Clinicians Base CAM Recommendations to Patients on Evidence of Efficacy? Since “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) is, by and large, mostly made up of a collection of modalities either based on prescientific thinking and possessing little, if any, plausibility on a scientific basis, my first reaction was to note that health care practitioners do recommend CAM to some patients, meaning that the answer must be, “No,” and then to move on. However, I wanted to see what Dr. Désirée A. Lie, the author, said and to see what the reasons are for whatever answer she came up with. So I read on.

The article starts with a case study:
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Posted in: Science and the Media

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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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Epigenetics: It doesn’t mean what quacks think it means

Epigenetics. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I realize I overuse that little joke, but I can’t help but think that virtually every time I see advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as it’s known more commonly now, “integrative medicine” discussing epigenetics. All you have to do to view mass quantities of misinterpretation of the science of epigenetics is to type the word into the “search” box of a website like Mercola.com or NaturalNews.com, and you’ll be treated to large numbers of articles touting the latest discoveries in epigenetics and using them as “evidence” of “mind over matter” and that you can “reprogram your genes.” It all sounds very “science-y” and impressive, but is it true?

Would that it were that easy!

You might recall that last year I discussed a particularly silly article by Joe Mercola entitled How your thoughts can cause or cure cancer, in which Mercola proclaims that “your mind can create or cure disease.” If you’ve been following the hot fashions and trends in quackery, you’ll know that quacks are very good at leaping on the latest bandwagons of science and twisting them to their own ends. The worst part of this whole process is that sometimes there’s a grain of truth at the heart of what they say, but it’s so completely dressed up in exaggerations and pseudoscience that it’s really, really hard for anyone without a solid grounding in the relevant science to recognize it. Such is the case with how purveyors of “alternative health” like Joe Mercola and Mike Adams have latched on to the concept of epigenetics.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Evolution, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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The Marino Center for Integrative Health: Hooey Galore

Two weeks ago I promised that I would discuss the Marino Center for Integrative Health, identified in the recent Bravewell report as having a “hospital affiliation” with the Newton-Wellesley Hospital (NWH) in Newton, Massachusetts, which is where I work. I also promised in that post that I’d provide examples of ‘integrative medicine’ practitioners offering false information about the methods that they endorse. I’d previously made that assertion here, and Jann Bellamy subsequently discussed its legal and ethical implications here. The Marino Center is a wellspring of such examples.

A Misleading ‘Affiliation’

Let’s quickly dispel the “hospital affiliation” claim. According to the Marino Center website:

Hospital Affiliations

In support of our services and to ensure that our patients have access to exceptional tertiary care, the Marino Center maintains deeply established relationships and affiliations for referrals and admitting privileges with major medical facilities in the Boston area.

The Marino Center:

  • Is a proud member of the Partners Healthcare family
  • Is affiliated with Newton Wellesley Hospital
  • Makes referrals to Mass General Hospital, Dana Farber, Children’s Hospital and more

Well, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Marino Center is a ‘member’ of the Partners Healthcare family, which includes not only the Newton-Wellesley Hospital, but lesser known entities such as the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. After all, there are already unfortunate pseudomedical schemes involving Partners entities, such as the Osher Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies and, even under my own roof (I shudder as I write this), a Reiki Workshop. Nevertheless, it’s telling, I hope, that not only does the Marino Center fail to appear under any list of Partners affiliates, Community Health Partnerships, Wellness, Prevention, or any other conceivable category, but it fails to yield a single ‘hit’ when entered as a search term on the Partners website (the term ‘integrative’ yields seven hits, but none appears to be about ‘CAM,’ except possibly for an RSS feed that I’ve no patience to peruse. Is it possible that Partners is embarrassed by the Osher Center? I hope that, too).

I’ve previously asserted that the NWH is not affiliated with the Marino Center, other than that some Marino Center physicians have been—against my judgment, not that I was consulted—granted hospital staff privileges. I made this assertion in my original Bravewell post a couple of weeks ago, after having questioned the NWH Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Les Selbovitz, who verified it; nothing on the NWH website suggests otherwise.

I’ve no reason to doubt the Marino Center’s third bullet above, “makes referrals to Mass General Hospital,” etc., but this is something that any physician can do, regardless of affiliation. I suspect that if there were an ‘integrative hospital‘ in Boston, reason forbid, the Marino Center would make referrals to it.

False and Misleading Information about ‘Services’

Let’s get to the meat of the problem.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Bravewell Bimbo Eruptions

This is yet another response to the recent “Integrative Medicine in America” report published by the Bravewell Collaborative. Drs. Novella and Gorski have already given that report its due, so I won’t repeat the background information. Inevitably, I’ll cover some of the same points, but I’ll also try to emphasize a few that stand out to me. Most of these have been discussed on SBM over the years, but bear repeating from time to time. Let’s begin with:

If it Ducks like a Quack…

Misleading language is the sine qua non of ‘integrative medicine’ (IM) and its various synonyms. The term itself is a euphemism, intended to distract the reader from first noticing the quackery that is its distinguishing characteristic. As previously explained, Bravewell darlings Andrew Weil and Ralph Snyderman, quack pitchmen extraordinaires, recognized nearly 10 years ago that if you really want to sell the product, you should dress it up in ways that appeal to a broad market.

Let’s see how this is done in the latest report. Here is the very first sentence:

The impetus for developing and implementing integrative medicine strategies is rooted in the desire to improve patient care.

Who would disagree with improving patient care? (Try not to notice the begged question). Here’s the next paragraph (emphasis added): (more…)

Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Bravewell Collaborative maps the state of “integrative medicine” in the U.S., or: Survey says, “Hop on the bandwagon of ‘integrative medicine’!” (2012 Edition)

Earlier today, Steve discussed a new report hot off the presses (metaphorically speaking, given that it’s been published online) from the Bravewell Collaborative. Naturally, given the importance of the issue, I couldn’t resist jumping in myself, but before you read the blather I have to lay down, you really should read what Steve wrote about it. It’s that good. (Also, he’s our fearless leader, and I wouldn’t want him to be…unhappy about my having muscled in on his usual day to post.) Have you read it? Good. Now we can begin…

One of the most common (and potent) strategies used by promoters of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM)–or, as its proponents like to call it these days, “integrative medicine” (IM)–to convince the public and physicians either to use it (or at least to remain a shruggie about it) is in essence an argumentum ad populum; i.e., an appeal to popularity. Specifically, CAM/IM apologists like to use the variant of argumentum ad populum known as the “bandwagon effect,” in which they try to persuade patients and physicians that they should get with the CAM/IM program because, in essence, everyone else is doing it and it’s sweeping the nation in much the same way New Coke did in the 1980s. (Admittedly, CAM/IM apologists are, unfortunately, much better at sales than Coca-Cola was.) Not coincidentally, this is one type of method of persuasion much favored by Madison Avenue when selling cars, clothing, music, movies, food, beer, and nearly every other product–like Coca-Cola. I say “not coincidentally” because what CAM proponents are doing, more than anything else, is selling a lifestyle, a brand, a belief system, and, of course, many, many products whose value reminds me, more than anything else, of the aforementioned New Coke. In using this appeal to popularity, CAM/IM proponents try to portray stodgy physicians (you know, like pretty much every one of us at this blog) who insist on plausibility, science, and evidence to support the use of drugs and treatments as hopelessly behind the times, dogmatic, out of touch, and in general no fun to be around at all, particularly at parties.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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“Obama Promises $156 Million to Alzheimer’s…But where will the money come from?” That’s easy: the NCCAM!

The quoted language above is part of the headline of this story in today’s The Scientist:

Citing the rising tide of Americans with Alzheimer’s—projections suggest 10 million people will be afflicted by 2050—the Obama administration and top National Institutes of Health officials are taking action. On February 7, they announced that they will add an additional $80 million to the 2013 NIH budget for the Alzheimer’s research program.

The problem is that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch:

However, Richard Hodes, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, told Nature that the 2013 dollars still have to be approved by Congress in the next budget and, if not, existing programs may need to be cut. And this year’s $50 million is likely to bump other projects, perhaps at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. “If there’s a finite budget anywhere, once there’s more of something, there is less of something else,” he said.

Often such budget compromises are difficult, because there is no ready way to choose between two or more competing recipients of taxpayers’ money, each of which might be comparably worthy. Thus it is with a great sense of relief that in this case, we in the biomedical community can assure President Obama that no such dilemma exists. This is one of those occasional decisions that requires no hair-pulling whatsoever. The obvious solution is to defund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which, at about $130 million/yr, would solve the problem of funding Alzheimer’s research and take the heat off other worthy programs such as those mentioned by Richard Hodes.

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Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Does thinking make it so? CAM placebo fantasy versus scientific reality

Last week, I discussed a rather execrable study. Actually, the study itself wasn’t so execrable, at least not in its design, which was a fairly straightforward three-arm randomized clinical trial. Rather it was the interpretation of the study’s results that was execrable. In brief, the authors tested an “energy healing” modality known as “energy chelation” versus a placebo (sham “energy chelation”) and found, as is so often the case in studies of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM) that both modalities did better than no treatment on the primary outcomes but that the “real” treatment (if one can call energy chelation “real treatment”) produced outcomes that were statistically indistinguishable from the “sham” treatment. Not surprisingly, the next move on the part of the researchers was to do a bunch of comparisons, and, as is so often the case (particularly when one fails to correct statistically for multiple comparisons), they found a couple of secondary endpoints with barely statistically significant differences and trumpeted them as meaning that their “energy chelation therapy” has “significant promise for reducing fatigue.” They then argued that the study was also ” designed to examine nonspecific and placebo elements that may drive responses.”

Which brings us to the “power” of placebo.

As I was contemplating what I wanted to discuss this week, I thought about the study that Drs. Coyne, Johansen, and I objected to, but then I also thought about Dr. Crislip’s post last week and post I did about a month ago in which I noticed how lately CAM apologists seem to be—shall we say?—retooling their message in the wake of negative trial after negative trial of their implausible treatments. Gone (mostly) are claims of powerful specific effects and efficacy from treatments such as various “energy healing” modalities, acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like themselves, to be replaced by claims that physicians should embrace CAM because it’s “harnessing the power of placebo” to produce “powerful mind-body healing.” It’s a powerful message that has sucked in people who normally would be considered skeptics, such as Michael Specter, who, as I described, apparently bought into the message sufficiently that when Ted Kaptchuk was making the media round right before the holidays he happily published a fairly credulous interview with him entitled, The Power of Nothing: Could Studying the Placebo Effect Change the Way We Think About Medicine? (My answer: Very likely no.) Even Ira Flatow of Science Friday fell hard for Kaptchuk’s message, declaring at the beginning of the interview that Kaptchuk’s irritable bowel syndrome study is evidence that “placebos work even when patients are in on the secret.” (It’s not.)

That skeptics and scientists find the idea that the mind has the power to heal the body, often referred to as “self-healing” or “mind-body healing,” so seductive should probably not be surprising. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to cure themselves simply by willing it to be so? It’s a concept that, like so many concepts in CAM, goes far back into ancient times and stretches forward to today in ideas like The Secret, which goes quite a bit beyond the whole idea of “mind-body healing” or healing yourself because you wish it to be so, and declares that you can have virtually anything you want simply by thinking the right thoughts. In fact, to me it appears that the “powerful placebo” is being drafted in the service of supporting what are, at their core, mystical beliefs far more than science. I’d like to elaborate on that idea a bit more than I did last time I discussed this isssue, where I concluded by writing:

In the end, all too much of the rebranding of CAM as placebo and the selling of placebos as some sort of powerful “mind-body healing” strikes me as being much like The Secret, in which wishing makes it so.

Let’s take a look at just how far this goes.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Religion

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What is Science?

Consider these statements:

…there is an evidence base for biofield therapies. (citing the Cochrane Review of Touch Therapies)

The larger issue is what constitutes “pseudoscience” and what information is worthy of dissemination to the public. Should the data from our well conducted, rigorous, randomized controlled trial [of 'biofield healing'] be dismissed because the mechanisms are unknown or because some scientists do not believe in the specific therapy?…Premature rejection of findings from rigorous randomized controlled trials are as big a threat to science as the continuation of falsehoods based on belief. Thus, as clinicians and scientists, our highest duty to patients should be to investigate promising solutions with high benefit/risk ratios, not to act as gatekeepers of information based on personal opinion.

–Jain et al, quoted here

Touch therapies may have a modest effect in pain relief. More studies on HT and Reiki in relieving pain are needed. More studies including children are also required to evaluate the effect of touch on children.

Touch Therapies are so-called as it is believed that the practitioners have touched the clients’ energy field.

It is believed this effect occurs by exerting energy to restore, energize, and balance the energy field disturbances using hands-on or hands-off techniques (Eden 1993). The underlying concept is that sickness and disease arise from imbalances in the vital energy field. However, the existence of the energy field of the human body has not been proven scientifically and thus the effect of such therapies, which are believed to exert an effect on one’s energy field, is controversial and lies in doubt.

—Cochrane Review of Touch Therapies, quoted here

 …

Science is advanced by an open mind that seeks knowledge, while acknowledging its current limits. Science does not make assertions about what cannot be true, simply because evidence that it is true has not yet been generated. Science does not mistake absence of evidence for evidence of absence. Science itself is fluid.

—David Katz

When people became interested in alternative medicines, they asked me to help out at Harvard Medical School. I realized that in order to survive there, one had to become a scientist. So I became a scientist.

—Ted Kaptchuk, quoted here.

 …It seems that the decision concerning acceptance of evidence (either in medicine or religion) ultimately reflects the beliefs of the person that exist before all arguments and observation.

 —Ted Kaptchuk, quoted here.

Together they betray a misunderstanding of science that is common not only to “CAM” apologists, but to many academic medical researchers. Let me explain. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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NIH Director Francis Collins doesn’t understand the problem with CAM

As the sole cancer surgeon among our stable of Science-Based Medicine (SBM) bloggers, I’m probably the most irritated at the infiltration of pseudoscience into academia (or, as we sometimes like to call it, quackademic medicine) in the realm of cancer. Part of the reason, of course, is that cancer is so common and that the consequences of adding pseudoscience to cancer therapy are among the most devastating. Witness, for instance, the use of Gonzalez therapy to treat pancreatic cancer, a form of quackery that harms patients and resulted in incredibly unethical and disastrous clinical trial of Gonzalez quackery versus chemotherapy whose results were entirely predictable, given the lack of prior plausibility of the treatment: Gonzalez protocol patients did worse, with no evidence that the therapy impacted the natural history of the disease and the Gonzalez patients scoring lower on quality of life measures. Or look at what happens when patients with breast cancer choose quackery over science-based therapy.

I realize that “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, what quackademics like to call it now, “integrative medicine” (IM) is meant to refer to “integrating” alternative therapies into SBM or “complementing” SBM with a touch of the ol’ woo, but I could never manage to understand how “integrating” quackery with SBM would do anything but weaken the scientific foundation of medicine. Moreover, weakening those foundations would have more consequences than just “humanizing” medicine; weaker scientific standards would allow not just ancient quackery like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) into academia, but it would also provide an opening for drug and device companies to promote their wares under less rigorous requirements for evidence. There’s also perhaps a touch of personal embarrassment involved. After all, oncology and cancer surgery tend to be specialties that are the most steeped in science. If I had to rank specialties for how science-based they are, I’d certainly put oncology near the top, which is why I tend to come down so hard on “integrative oncology” and, even worse, “naturopathic oncology.”

Consequently, I was doubly disturbed several months ago when I learned that the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, had agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Eight International Society for Integrative Oncology Conference in Cleveland, OH. I say “doubly” disturbed because it disturbed me that Francis Collins would agree to speak at such a function and, perhaps even more, because the host institution was Case Western Reserve University, the institution where I both completed my surgery residency and my PhD in Physiology and Biophysics. Sadly, it now appears that my old stomping grounds at University Hospitals has been thoroughly infiltrated with quackademic medicine, as evidenced by this clinical trial of reiki for psoriasis that’s making the rounds of news services and the offering of acupuncture, reiki, and even reflexology at various UH facilities through the University Hospitals Connor Integrative Medicine Network. Let me tell you, there was none of this pseudoscience going on when I finished my residency there in 1996. Seeing it there now provokes a reaction in me not unlike Sylvester Junior’s reaction when his father Sylvester embarrasses him, particularly when I noted that the director of the CWRU Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Stanton L. Gerson, was to give one of the keynote talks, entitled, “The Future of Integrative Oncology.” (Hint for those of you not familiar with classic Looney Tunes cartoons: A paper bag is involved.) I guess that by expressing my extreme disappointment and embarrassment that the institution where I learned to become a surgeon has during the last 15 years gone woo, I’ve probably just killed any opportunity I might have to work at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center ever again. Oh, well, add it to the list, along with Beth Israel and my alma mater the University of Michigan.)

Back when I first learned about it, I thought about blogging the meeting, but without much concrete to go on, given the copious other SBM-related topics to blog about, all I could do was to write a critical open letter to Dr. Collins about his decision to accept the offer to be the keynote speaker at the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO). Then yesterday I saw popping up in my e-mail a notice from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), along with a link to a story in its publication The ASCO Post entitled NIH Director Calls for Rigorous Evaluation of Integrative Medicine to Provide Evidence of Efficacy.

Et tu, Dr. Collins?
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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