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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine

Background

This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word ”doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Update on Josephine Briggs and the NCCAM

Dr. Gorski is in the throes of grant-writing, so I’m filling in for him today by following up on a topic introduced a few months ago. It involves a key medical player in the U.S. government: Dr. Josephine Briggs, Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Background

Steve Novella and I first encountered Dr. Briggs at the 2nd Yale Research Symposium on Complementary and Integrative Medicine in March, 2010. I reported here that she seemed well-meaning and pro-science but that she also seemed naive to the political realities of her office and to much of the content of “CAM” (as illustrated by her recommending the NCCAM website, which is full of misinformation; previously I’d noticed her unfortunate innocence of “acupuncture anesthesia,” which is to be expected of most academics but not of the CAM Explicator-in-Chief).

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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“CAM” Education in Medical Schools—A Critical Opportunity Missed

Mea culpa to the max. I completely forgot that today is my day to post on SBM, so I’m going to have to cheat a little. Here is a link to a recent article by yours truly that appeared on Virtual Mentor, an online ethics journal published by the AMA with major input from medical students. Note that I didn’t write the initial scenario; that was provided to me for my comments. The contents for the entire issue, titled “Complementary and Alternative Therapies—Medicine’s Response,” are here. Check out some of the other contributors (I was unaware of who they would be when I agreed to write my piece).

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Surprise, surprise! Dr. Andrew Weil doesn’t like evidence-based medicine

ResearchBlogging.orgDr. Andrew Weil is a rock star in the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM) movement. Indeed, it can be persuasively argued that he is one of its founders, at least a founder of the its most modern iteration, and I am hard-pressed to think of anyone who did more in the early days of the CAM/IM movement, back before it ever managed to achieve a modicum of unearned respectability, to popularize CAM. In fact, no physician that I can think of has over the course of his lifetime done more to promote the rise of quackademic medicine than Dr. Weil. The only forces greater than Dr. Weil in promoting the infiltration of pseudoscience into academic medicine have been the Bravewell Collaborative and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Before there was Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Mark Hyman, or any of the other promoters of IM, there was Dr. Weil.

And why not? Dr. Weil looks like an aging 1960s rock star, and, operating from his redoubt at the University of Arizona, is quite charismatic. For all the world he has the appearance of a kindly, benevolent Arizona desert Santa Claus, an ex-hippie turned respectable dispensing advice about “natural” medicines, writing books, and making himself ubiquitous on television and radio whenever the topic of alternative medicine comes up. Before Dr. Oz told Steve Novella that “Western” science and medicine can’t study woo like acupuncture, Dr. Weil was there, paving the way for such arguments, previously considered ludicrous, to achieve a patina of respectability.

In fact, he’s still at it, doing it far better and far more subtly than the ham-handed Dr. Oz. Unfortunately, it’s the same anti-science message and the same appeal to other ways of knowing built upon tearing down straw men versions of evidence-based medicine (EBM) with gusto. This was brought home last week when Dr. Weil co-authored an opinion piece with Drs. Scott Shannon and Bonnie J. Kaplan for the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies entitled Safety and Patient Preferences, Not Just Effectiveness, Should Guide Medical Treatment Decisions, an article that was noted at the blog Booster Shots in a credulous, fawning post entitled Dr. Weil says there’s a better approach to evaluating clinical drug trials. In contast, Steve Novella put it far more succinctly (and accurately) in the title of his post: Andrew Weil Attacks EBM. That’s exactly what Weil and company did in this article.

While Steve is absolutely correct, I also see it more as Dr. Weil demonstrating once again that, upstarts like Dr. Oz aside, he is still the master of CAM/IM apologia, much as, even though both were Sith Lords, Emperor Palpatine remained master over Darth Vader until just before the end. You’ll see why in terms of the arguments, both subtle and not-so-subtle, that Dr. Weil and his acolytes make. Moreover, even though his disciple Shannon is granted the coveted first author position, the arguments presented leave little doubt that it’s Weil who’s driving the bus.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia

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Cochrane is Starting to ‘Get’ SBM!

This essay is the latest in the series indexed at the bottom.* It follows several (nos. 10-14) that responded to a critique by statistician Stephen Simon, who had taken issue with our asserting an important distinction between Science-Based Medicine (SBM) and Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM). (Dr. Gorski also posted a response to Dr. Simon’s critique). A quick-if-incomplete Review can be found here.

One of Dr. Simon’s points was this:

I am as harshly critical of the hierarchy of evidence as anyone. I see this as something that will self-correct over time, and I see people within EBM working both formally and informally to replace the rigid hierarchy with something that places each research study in context. I’m staying with EBM because I believe that people who practice EBM thoughtfully do consider mechanisms carefully. That includes the Cochrane Collaboration.

To which I responded:

We don’t see much evidence that people at the highest levels of EBM, eg, Sackett’s Center for EBM or Cochrane, are “working both formally and informally to replace the rigid hierarchy with something that places each research study in context.”

Hallafrickin’loo-ya

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to quip—or perhaps that was exactly what the doctor ordered, as will become clear—because on March 5th, nearly four months after writing those words, I received this email from Karianne Hammerstrøm, the Trials Search Coordinator and Managing Editor for The Campbell Collaboration, which lists Cochrane as one of its partners and which, together with the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services, is a source of systematic reviews:

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part IV, Continued: More Cochrane and a little Bayes

OK, I admit that I pulled a fast one. I never finished the last post as promised, so here it is.

Cochrane Continued

In the last post I alluded to the 2006 Cochrane Laetrile review, the conclusion of which was:

This systematic review has clearly identified the need for randomised or controlled clinical trials assessing the effectiveness of Laetrile or amygdalin for cancer treatment.

I’d previously asserted that this conclusion “stand[s] the rationale for RCTs on its head,” because a rigorous, disconfirming case series had long ago put the matter to rest. Later I reported that Edzard Ernst, one of the Cochrane authors, had changed his mind, writing, “Would I argue for more Laetrile studies? NO.” That in itself is a reason for optimism, but Dr. Ernst is such an exception among “CAM” researchers that it almost seemed not to count.

Until recently, however, I’d only seen the abstract of the Cochrane Laetrile review. Now I’ve read the entire review, and there’s a very pleasant surprise in it (Professor Simon, take notice). In a section labeled “Feedback” is this letter from another Cochrane reviewer, which was apparently added in August of 2006, well before I voiced my own objections:

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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An ICD Code for the Running Piglets!

… animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.

– Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986)1

Not too long ago, I came across a disease taxonomy proposed by a certain East-West Medical Research Institute (EWMRI), that includes the kind of fantastic afflictions — such as “running piglet” disorder — fit for the best Borgesian list.

This obscure institute, located at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, Korea, is one of the 800 WHO Collaborating Centres designated to carry out various activities in support of the Organization’s programs. With the collaboration of China, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and the US, this center is working to incorporate medieval Asian disease nomenclature to the 11th version of the International Classification of Disease (ICD-11).
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Science and Medicine

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For Good Reason…

This one crept up on me by surprise. You see, I recorded an interview with D.J. Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation and host of the podcast For Good Reason back in November. I wasn’t sure when it would appear. Well, it turns out that it popped up on my iTunes podcast feeds sometime over the last few days. (It’s been really busy at work, and I haven’t really been paying attention to podcasts–at least, not until yesterday.)

So, here it is. I haven’t listened to it all yet, but hopefully I explained myself well enough and did credit to my fellow SBM bloggers. DJ is a good interviewer, which means he presses his subjects a bit and sometimes gets them out of their comfort zone.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Vaccine Wars: the NCCAM Drops the Ball

If you go to the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), you’ll find that one of its self-identified roles is to “provide information about CAM.” NCCAM Director Josephine Briggs is proud to assert that the website fulfills this expectation. As many readers will recall, three of your bloggers visited the NCCAM last April, after having received an invitation from Dr. Briggs. We differed from her in our opinion of the website: one of our suggestions was that the NCCAM could do a better job providing American citizens with useful and accurate information about “CAM.”

We cited, among several examples, the website offering little response to the dangerous problem of widespread misinformation about childhood immunizations. As Dr. Novella subsequently reported, it seemed that we’d scored a point on that one:

…Dr. Briggs did agree that anti-vaccine sentiments are common in the world of CAM and that the NCCAM can do more to combat this. Information countering anti-vaccine propaganda would be a welcome addition to the NCCAM site.

In anticipation of SBM’s Vaccine Awareness Week, I decided to find out whether such a welcome addition has come to fruition. The short answer: nope.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Legal, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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“Hard science” and medical school

One of the recurring themes of this blog, not surprisingly given its name, is the proper role of science in medicine. As Dr. Novella has made clear from the very beginning, we advocate science-based medicine (SBM), which is what evidence-based medicine (EBM) should be. SBM tries to overcome the shortcomings of EBM by taking into account all the evidence, both scientific and clinical, in deciding what therapies work, what therapies don’t work, and why. To recap, a major part of our thesis is that EBM, although a step forward over prior dogma-based medical models, ultimately falls short of making medicine as effective as it can be. As currently practiced, EBM appears to worship clinical trial evidence above all else and nearly completely ignores basic science considerations, relegating them to the lowest form of evidence, lower than even small case series. This blind spot has directly contributed to the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine and so-called EBM because in the cases of ridiculously improbable modalities like homeopathy and reiki, deficiencies in how clinical trials are conducted and analyzed can make it appear that these modalities might actually have efficacy.

Given this thesis, if there’s one aspect of medical education that I consider to be paramount, at least when it comes to understanding how to analyze and apply all the evidence, both basic science and clinical, it’s a firm grounding in the scientific method. Unfortunately, in medical school there is very little, if any, concentration on the scientific method. In fact, one thing that shocked me when I first entered what is one of the best medical schools in the U.S., the University of Michigan, was just how “practical” the science taught to us as students was. It was very much a “just the facts, ma’am,” sort of presentation, with little, if any, emphasis on how those scientific facts were discovered. Indeed, before I entered medical school, I had taken graduate level biochemistry courses for a whole year. This was some truly hard core stuff. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get out of taking medical school biochemistry my first year, but taking the course was illuminating. The contrast was marked in that in medical school there was very little in the way of mechanistic detail, but there was a whole lot of memorization. The same was true in nearly all the other classes we took in the first two years. True, for anatomy it’s pretty hard not to have to engage in a lot of rote memorization, but the same shouldn’t necessarily be true of physiology and pharmacology, for example. It was, though.

Over time, I came to realize that there was no easy answer to correcting this problem, because medical school is far more akin to a trade school than a science training school, and the question of how much science and in what form it should be taught are difficult questions that go to the heart of medical education and what it means to be a good physician. Clearly, I believe that, among other things, a good physician must use science-based practice, but how does medical education achieve that? That’s one reason why I’m both appalled and intrigued by a program at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine for humanities majors to enter medical school without all the hard sciences. It’s a program that was written up in the New York Times last Wednesday in an article entitled Getting Into Med School Without Hard Sciences, and whose results were published in Medical Academia under the title Challenging Traditional Premedical Requirements as Predictors of Success in Medical School: The Mount Sinai School of Medicine Humanities and Medicine Program.

Let’s first take a look at how the NYT described the program:
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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