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Homeopathy and Plausibility

The fundamental concept of science-based medicine (SBM) is that medical practice should be based upon the best available science. This may seem obvious, but there are many important details to its application, such as the relationship between clinical and basic science. Clinical claims require clinical evidence, but clinical evidence can be tricky and is often preliminary. It is therefore helpful (I would say essential) to view the clinical evidence in light of all of the rest of science.

A thorough basic and clinical science analysis of a medical claim can be summarized by the term “plausibility,” or “prior probability” if you want to put it into statistical terms. When we say a certain belief is plausible we mean it is consistent with what we know from the rest of science. In other words, because of the many weaknesses of clinical evidence, in order for a therapy to be generally accepted as part of SBM it should have a certain minimal supporting clinical evidence and overall scientific plausibility.

These can exist in different proportions – for example one therapy may be highly plausible (it would be shocking if it were not true) and have modest supporting clinical evidence, while another may have unknown plausibility but with solid clinical evidence of efficacy. But no therapy should have clinical evidence that suggests lack of efficacy, nor extreme implausibility (not just an unknown mechanism, but no possible mechanism).

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Posted in: Homeopathy

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The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s muddled draft policy on “non-allopathic” medicine

Detroit is my hometown, and three and a half years ago, after nearly twenty years away wandering between residency, graduate school, fellowship, and my first academic job, I found myself back in Detroit minted as surgical faculty at Wayne State University and practicing and doing research at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. One thing that I had forgotten about while I was away for so many years is just how intimately southeast Michigan interacts with Canada. This closeness is not surprising, given that Detroit and Windsor are separated by only about a half mile of Detroit River. Indeed, a there are a lot of Canadians who cross the border on a daily basis to work in the Detroit area, many of them in the medical center within which my cancer center is located. The reason I point this out is not to wax nostalgic for trips to Windsor or for the occasional trip to Stratford to see plays but to point out that Ontario is right next to us. What happens there is of concern to me because I know quite a few people who live there and because it can on occasion influence what goes on over here on the U.S. side of the border.

I recently learned that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has been working on updating its policy on the use of nonconventional medical therapies. The wag in me can’t help but wonder why such a policy would need to say anything other than that, if it isn’t science- and evidence-based, the CPSO doesn’t support using it, but in a less sarcastic moment I realized that such a policy is probably not that bad an idea, as long as it doesn’t legitimize pseudoscience, which is, of course, the biggest pitfall to be avoided when writing such a policy. Not too long ago, the CPSO released its draft policy and has asked for public comments, with the deadline being September 1. I was happy to learn that I had not missed the deadline, because there is much to comment about regarding this policy, but it’s definitely true that time’s short. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so happy when I read the title of the draft policy, namely Non-Allopathic (Non-Conventional) Therapies in Medical Practice, with a subtitle of “Formerly named Complementary Medicine.” The full policy in PDF form can be found at this link.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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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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Placebos as Medicine: The Ethics of Homeopathy

Is it ever ethical to provide a placebo treatment? What about when that placebo is homeopathy? Last month I blogged about the frequency of placebo prescribing by physicians.  I admitted my personal discomfort, stating I’d refuse to dispense any prescription that would require me to deceive the patient. The discussion continued in the comments, where opinions seemed to range from (I’m paraphrasing)  “autonomy, shmatonomy, placebos works” to the more critical who likened placebo use to “treating adults like children.”  Harriet Hall noted,  “We should have rules but we should be willing to break them when it would be kinder to the patient, and would do no harm.” And on reflection, Harriet’s perspective was one that I could see myself accepting should I be in a situation like the one  she described. It’s far easier to be dogmatic when you don’t have a patient standing in front of you. But the comments led me to consider possible situations where a placebo might actually be the most desirable treatment option. If I find some, should I be as dogmatic about homeopathy as I am about other placebos?

Nicely, Kevin Smith, writing in the journal Bioethics, examines the ethics of placebos, based on an analysis of homeopathy. Homeopathy is the ultimate placebo in routine use — most remedies contain only sugar and water, lacking a single molecule of any potentially medicinal ingredient. Smith’s paper, Against Homeopathy — A Utilitarian Perspective, is sadly behind a paywall.  So I’ll try to summarize his analysis, and add my perspective as a health care worker who regularly encounters homeopathy.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Medical Ethics

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Smallpox and Pseudomedicine

A good case of smallpox may rid the system of more scrofulous, tubercular, syphilitic and other poisons than could otherwise be eliminated in a lifetime. Therefore, smallpox is certainly to be preferred to vaccination. The one means elimination of chronic disease, the other the making of it.

Naturopaths do not believe in artificial immunization . . .

—Harry Riley Spitler, Basic Naturopathy: a textbook (American Naturopathic Association, Inc., 1948). Quoted here.

Here’s what a good case of smallpox will do for you:

If you’re lucky enough to beat the reaper (20-60%; 80% or higher in infants) or blindness (up to 30%), those blisters will leave you scarred for life. Oh, and the next time a good smallpox epidemic comes around, your children born since the last one will catch it and contribute their fair share to the death rate. But not you because you’ll be immune, so you’ll have the “preferred” experience of watching your children die well before you do.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Epidemiology, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Public Health, Vaccines

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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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Naturopathy and science

Naturopathy has been a recurrent topic on this blog. The reasons should be obvious. Although homeopathy is the one woo to rule them all in the U.K. and much of Europe, here in the U.S. homeopathy is not nearly as big a deal. Arguably, some flavor of naturopathy is the second most prevalent “alternative medical system” here, after chiropractic of course, and perhaps duking it out with traditional Chinese medicine, although naturopathy does embrace TCM as part of the armamentarium of dubious medical systems that it uses. In any case, some sixteen states and five Canadian provinces license naturopaths in some form, and in some states naturopaths are fighting for–and in some cases winning–the power to prescribe certain real pharmaceutical medications and order real medical tests. For instance, in California, naturopaths can order laboratory tests and X-rays, which reminds me of a conversation I had with a mammographer from California at TAM last summer. He told me a tale of the dilemma he had when naturopaths and other “alt-med” practitioners ordered tests at his facilities. Specifically, the dilemma came about because he doubted that the naturopath knew what to do with the results. Meanwhile, in Oregon, naturopaths can prescribe certain types of pharmaceutical drugs (as opposed to the usual supplements, herbs, or homeopathic remedies they normally prescribe). Meanwhile, moves are under way to expand the prescribing privileges of naturopaths in Canada, as Ontario (which is, remember, just across the Detroit River, less than two and a half miles as the crow flies from my cancer center—a truly frightening thought to me).

Unfortunately, naturopathy is a hodge-podge of mostly unscientific treatment modalities based on vitalism and other prescientific notions of disease. As a result, typical naturopaths are more than happy in essence to “pick one from column A and one from column B” when it comes to pseudoscience, mixing and matching treatments including traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, herbalism, Ayurvedic medicine, applied kinesiology, anthroposophical medicine, reflexology, craniosacral therapy, Bowen Technique, and pretty much any other form of unscientific or prescientific medicine that you can imagine. Despite their affinity for non-science-based medical systems, naturopaths crave the imprimatur of science. As a result, they desperately try to represent what they do as being science-based, and they’ve even set up research institutes, much like the departments, divisions, and institutes devoted to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) that have cropped up on the campuses of legitimate medical schools and academic medical centers like so many weeds poking through the cracks in the edifice of science-based medicine. Naturopaths also really, really don’t like it when they encounter criticism that their “discipline” is not science-based. Indeed, the president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, Carl Hangee-Bauer, ND, LAc (he’s an acupuncturist, too!), wrote a revealing post on the official AANP blog entitled Science and Naturopathic Medicine.

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

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Naturopathy

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The NCCAM Strategic Plan 2011-2015: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

As hard as it is to believe, it’s been nearly a year since Steve Novella, Kimball Atwood, and I were invited to meet with the director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), Dr. Josephine Briggs. Depending upon the day, sometimes it seems like just yesterday; sometimes it seems like ancient history. For more details, read Steve’s account of our visit, but the CliffsNotes version is that we had a pleasant conversation in which we discussed our objections to how NCCAM funds dubious science and advocacy of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). When we left the NIH campus, our impression was that Dr. Briggs is well-meaning and dedicated to increasing the scientific rigor of NCCAM studies but doesn’t understand the depths of pseudoscience that constitute much of what passes for CAM. We were also somewhat optimistic that we had at least managed to communicate some of our most pressing practical concerns, chief among which is the anti-vaccine bent of so much of CAM and how we hoped that NCCAM would at least combat some of that on its website.

Looking at the NCCAM website, I see no evidence that there has been any move to combat the anti-vaccine tendencies of CAM by posting pro-vaccination pieces or articles refuting common anti-vaccine misinformation. Of all the topics we discussed, it was clearest that everyone, including Dr. Briggs, agreed that the NCCAM can’t be perceived as supporting anti-vaccine viewpoints, and although it doesn’t explicitly do so, neither does it do much to combat the anti-vaccine viewpoints so ingrained in CAM. As far as I’m concerned, I’m with Kimball in asserting that NCCAM’s silence on the matter is in effect tacit approval of anti-vaccine viewpoints. Be that as it may, not long afterward, Dr. Briggs revealed that she had met with homeopaths around the same time she had met with us, suggesting that we were simply brought in so that she could say she had met with “both sides.” Later, she gave a talk to the 25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), which is truly a bastion of pseudoscience.

In other words, I couldn’t help but get the sinking feeling that we had been played. Not that we weren’t mildly suspicious when we traveled to Bethesda, but from our perspective we really didn’t have a choice: if we were serious about our mission to promote science-based medicine, Dr. Briggs’ was truly an offer we could not refuse. We had to go. Period. I can’t speak for Steve or Kimball, but I was excited to go as well. Never in my wildest dreams had it occurred to me that the director of NCCAM would even notice what we were writing, much less take it seriously enough to invite us out for a visit. I bring all this up because last week NCCAM did something that might provide an indication of whether it’s changed, whether Dr. Briggs has truly embraced the idea that rigorous science should infuse NCCAM and all that it does, let the chips fall where they may. Last week, NCCAM released its five year strategic plan for 2011 to 2015.

Truly, it’s a case of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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