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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part II: Is it a Good Idea to test Highly Implausible Health Claims?

Review

This is the second post in a series* prompted by an essay by statistician Stephen Simon, who argued that Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) is not lacking in the ways that we at Science-Based Medicine have argued. David Gorski responded here, and Prof. Simon responded to Dr. Gorski here. Between that response and the comments following Dr. Gorski’s post it became clear to me that a new round of discussion would be worth the effort.

Part I of this series provided ample evidence for EBM’s “scientific blind spot”: the EBM Levels of Evidence scheme and EBM’s most conspicuous exponents consistently fail to consider all of the evidence relevant to efficacy claims, choosing instead to rely almost exclusively on randomized, controlled trials (RCTs). The several quoted Cochrane abstracts, regarding homeopathy and Laetrile, suggest that in the EBM lexicon, “evidence” and “RCTs” are almost synonymous. Yet basic science or preliminary clinical studies provide evidence sufficient to refute some health claims (e.g., homeopathy and Laetrile), particularly those emanating from the social movement known by the euphemism “CAM.”

It’s remarkable to consider just how unremarkable that last sentence ought to be. EBM’s founders understood the proper role of the rigorous clinical trial: to be the final arbiter of any claim that had already demonstrated promise by all other criteria—basic science, animal studies, legitimate case series, small controlled trials, “expert opinion,” whatever (but not inexpert opinion). EBM’s founders knew that such pieces of evidence, promising though they may be, are insufficient because they “routinely lead to false positive conclusions about efficacy.” They must have assumed, even if they felt no need to articulate it, that claims lacking such promise were not part of the discussion. Nevertheless, the obvious point was somehow lost in the subsequent formalization of EBM methods, and seems to have been entirely forgotten just when it ought to have resurfaced: during the conception of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine’s Introduction to Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine.

Thus, in 2000, the American Heart Journal (AHJ) could publish an unchallenged editorial arguing that Na2EDTA chelation “therapy” could not be ruled out as efficacious for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease because it hadn’t yet been subjected to any large RCTs—never mind that there had been several small ones, and abundant additional evidence from basic science, case studies, and legal documents, all demonstrating that the treatment is both useless and dangerous. The well-powered RCT had somehow been transformed, for practical purposes, from the final arbiter of efficacy to the only arbiter. If preliminary evidence was no longer to have practical consequences, why bother with it at all? This was surely an example of what Prof. Simon calls “Poorly Implemented Evidence Based Medicine,” but one that was also implemented by the very EBM experts who ought to have recognized the fallacy.

There will be more evidence for these assertions as we proceed, but the main thrust of Part II is to begin to respond to this statement from Prof. Simon: “There is some societal value in testing therapies that are in wide use, even though there is no scientifically valid reason to believe that those therapies work.”

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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What’s with the new cough and cold products?

One of my earliest lessons as a pharmacist working in the “real world” was that customers didn’t always act the way I expected. Parents of sick children frequently fell into this category — and the typical vignette went like this for me:

  1. Parent has determined that their child is sick, and needs some sort of over-the-counter medicine.
  2. Parent asks pharmacist for advice selecting a product from the dozens on the shelves.
  3. Pharmacist uses the opportunity to provide science-based advice, and assures parent that no drug therapy is necessary.
  4. Parent directly questions the validity of this advice, and may ask about the merits of a specific product they have already identified.
  5. Pharmacist explains efficacy and risk of the product, and provides general non-drug symptom management suggestions.
  6. Parent thanks pharmacist, selects product despite advice, and walks to the front of the store to pay.

In many ways, a pharmacy purchase mirrors the patient-physician interaction that ends with a prescription being written — it’s what feels like the logical end to the consultation, and without it, feels incomplete. It’s something that I’m observing more and more frequently when advising parents about cough and cold products for children.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Legal, 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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“Integrative” oncology: Trojan horse, quackademic medicine, or both?

One of the main topics that we’ve covered here on this blog over the last couple of years is the relatively rapid, seemingly relentless infiltration of pseudoscience into what should be bastions of science-based medicine (SBM), namely medical schools and academic medical centers promoted by academics who should, but apparently don’t, know better. From the very beginning, we’ve written numerous posts about this infiltration and how it has been facilitated by a variety of factors, including changes in the culture of medical academia and our own culture in general, not to mention a dedicated cadre of ideologues such as the Bravewell Collaboration, whose purpose is to blur the lines between science and pseudoscience and promote the “integration” of quackery into science-based medicine. Certainly promoters of what Dr. Robert W. Donnell termed “quackademic medicine” wouldn’t put it that way, but I would. Indeed, promoters of quackademic medicine scored a major victory last month, when a credulous piece of tripe about acupuncture passing as a review article managed to find its way into the New England Journal Medicine, a misstep that was promptly skewered by Mark Crislip, Steve Novella, and myself. It’s rare for more than two of us to write about the same topic, but it was earned by a mistake as dire as the editors of the NEJM allowing rank pseudoscience to sully its normally science-based pages.

Today, I want to riff a bit on one aspect of this phenomenon. As a cancer surgeon, I’ve dedicated myself to treating patients with cancer and then subspecialized even further, dedicating myself to the surgical treatment of breast cancer. Consequently, the interface of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) in the treatment of cancer both interests and appalls me. The reason for my horror at the application of CAM to cancer patients, as you might expect, is that cancer is a disease that is highly feared and can be highly deadly, depending upon the specific kind of cancer. Cancer patients deserve nothing less than the best science-based evidence that we have to offer, free of pseudoscience. Yet in even the most highly respected cancer centers, such as M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, there are departments or divisions of what is increasingly called “integrative oncology.” The claim behind “integrative oncology” is that it is “integrating the best of science-based and ‘alternative’ medicine,” but in reality all too often it is “integrating” quackery with science-based medicine. I have yet to hear an explanation of how “integrating” pseudoscience or nonscience into science-based oncology benefits cancer patients, but, then, that’s probably just the nasty old reductionist in me. Let’s find out.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Homeopathy, Naturopathy

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Taking On Homeopathy in Germany

Homeopathy is having a bad year. From a scientific point of view, it has had a couple of bad centuries. The progress of our scientific understanding of biology, chemistry, and physics has failed to confirm any of the core beliefs of homeopathy. Like does not cure like (this is a form of superstition known as sympathetic magic, with no basis in science). Diluting substances does not make them stronger – a notion that violates the chemical law of mass action and the laws of thermodynamics. And countless clinical studies have shown that homeopathic preparations are nothing more than placebos. That homeopathy cannot work and does not work is settled science, as much as it is possible for science to be settled.

Despite the science, homeopathy has persevered through a combination of cultural inertia and political support. But in the last year there are signs that this trend may be reversing. In the UK The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) released a report, Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy, in which they conclude that homeopathy is failed science and should be completely abandoned – no further support in the NHS and no further research.

Following that the British Medical Association has openly called for an NHS ban on homeopathy, calling the practice “witchcraft.”

Now German politicians are starting to echo the same sentiments. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy

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New CMS Chief Donald Berwick: a Trojan Horse for Quackery?

NB: I posted this on Health Care Renewal a couple of days ago, figuring that Dr. Gorski’s post would suffice for the SBM readership (he and I had discussed the topic while at TAM8 last week). But Managing Editor Gorski has asked me to repost it here, which I’m happy to do. I am especially pleased to demonstrate that I am capable of writing a shorter post than is Dr. Gorski. ;-)

On July 7, President Obama appointed Dr. Donald Berwick as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Dr. Berwick, a pediatrician, is well known as the CEO of the non-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), which “exists to close the enormous gap between the health care we have and the health care we should have — a gap so large in the US that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2001 called it a ‘quality chasm’.” Dr. Berwick was one of the authors of that IOM report. His IHI has been a major player in the patient safety movement, most notably with its “100,000 Lives Campaign” and, more recently, its “5 Million Lives Campaign.”

Berwick’s CMS gig is a “recess appointment”: it was made during the Senate’s July 4th recess period, without a formal confirmation hearing—although such a hearing must take place before the end of this Senate term, if he is to remain in the position. A recent story suggested that Obama had made the recess appointment in order to avoid a reprise of “last year’s divisive health care debate.” The president had originally nominated Berwick for the position in April, and Republicans have opposed “Berwick’s views on rationing of care,” claiming that he “would deny needed care based on cost.”

A “Patient-Centered Extremist”

If there is a problem with the appointment, it is likely to be roughly the opposite of what Republicans might suppose: Dr. Berwick is a self-described “Patient-Centered Extremist.” He favors letting patients have the last word in decisions about their care even if that means, for example, choosing to have unnecessary and expensive hi-tech studies. In an article for Health Affairs published about a year ago, he explicitly argued against the “professionally dominant view of quality of health care”:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Cancer Treatment Centers of America and “naturopathic oncology”

EDITOR’S NOTICE: NOTE THE DISCLAIMER.

On “wholistic” medicine

If there’s one aspect of so-called “alternative medicine” and “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) is that its practitioners tout as being a huge advantage over what they often refer to sneeringly as “conventional” or “scientific” medicine is that — or so its practitioners claim — alt-med treats the “whole patient,” that it’s “wholistic” in a way that the evil reductionist “Western” science-based medicine can’t be. Supposedly, we reductionistic, unimaginative physicians only focus on disease and ignore the “whole patient.” Of course, to me this claim is belied by the hectoring to which my own primary care physician has subjected me about my horrible diet and lack of exercise on pretty much every visit I’ve had with her, but then maybe she’s an anomaly, along with Dr. Lipson on this very blog and pretty much every other primary care doctor I’ve ever dealt with. Anecdotal experience, I know, but since alt-med mavens appear to value anecdotal evidence above pretty much all else I thought it appropriate to mention here. Also belying the claim of alt-med practitioners that they “individualize” treatments to their patients in a way that science-based medicine does not is the maddening tendency of various alt-med modalities to settle on just One True Cause of All Disease, be it liver flukes as the One True Cause of Cancer, heavy metal toxicity as the One True Cause of cancer, autism, and various other diseases, or “allergies,” acid, or obstruction of the flow of qi as the One True Cause of All Disease.

Given the claim of “wholism” that is such an advertising gimmick among many of the varieties of woo, I’m always interested when I see evidence that alt-med is imitating its envied and disliked reductionistic competition. True, this is nothing new, given how alt-med has tried to seek legitimacy by taking on the mantle of science-based medicine wherever it can. Examples include the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), various organizations that try to confer legitimacy to pseudoscience by providing “certification” in various flavors of woo, and moves to push state medical boards to go further than that and confer legally protected status to practitioners by actually licensing them. This latter tactic has been very successful in that many states now license acupuncturists, while some states even license naturopaths and “homeopathic physicians,” the latter of which I find quite amusing because the term perfectly encapsulates what must remain of such a physician’s medical training after being diluted to 30C with woo. The only difference is that, unlike what is claimed with homeopathy, diluting MD medical knowledge with woo does not make it stronger. In terms of naturopathy, though, one of the most alarming aspects of the infiltration of naturopaths into the health care system is that some states in the U.S. and provinces in Canada are seriously considering allowing them to prescribe real pharmaceutical medications, even though they lack the training and knowledge to use such drugs safely.

Imagine my combination of bemusement and alarm, then, when I learned of a new specialty of pseudoscience, namely the field of naturopathic oncology.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. (I know I was when I first encountered this specialty.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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Randi on World Homeopathy Awareness Week

World Homeopathy Awareness Week is fast coming to an end, unfortunately. And what would any sort of “homeopathy awareness” be without a commentary from James Randi? After all, Steve, Kimball, and I will be seeing Randi on Saturday as we participate in the SBM panel for NECSS:

We at SBM share with Randi his desire that people be aware of the true nature of homeopathy.

Posted in: Homeopathy

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A homeopathy supporter notices our visit with the director of NCCAM

On April 2, Steve Novella, Kimball Atwood, and I visited the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to meet with its director, Dr. Josephine Briggs. I’m not going to rehash what was said because we agreed that Steve would handle that task, and he did so admirably last week. I agree with Steve that it was encouraging that Dr. Briggs apparently reads this blog and shares many of our concerns about NCCAM, the poor science that it has funded, and its use by promoters of unscientific medicine to promote their quackery. Most heartening of all was that she appeared to recognize how much CAM is infused with anti-vaccine beliefs and, worse, the promotion of these beliefs to the detriment of public health.

Those positive reactions to what was a friendly but frank exchange of views notwithstanding, as we were sitting in a conference room next to Dr. Briggs’ office, I couldn’t help but wonder what the reaction of CAM promoters would be when they found out about this meeting. Now I know. John Weeks over at The Integrator Blog is not happy:

Novella’s posting reads like a Fox News interview: 95% his team’s point, then a brief NCCAM response. That Briggs asked for the meeting likely grew out of an early March conference at Yale at which Novella and she both participated. For this, she deserves the Barack Obama Big Tent award for her proven interest in sitting down with everyone, no matter which party affiliation or belief. (Some have said this was proven in early 2008 when Briggs met with me.) Arguably, Briggs takes her openness to dialogue further than the President. While Obama has kept arms length from leaders who call for the demise of the United States, Briggs has now met with those who have been lobbing bombs at her professional home for years, calling steadily for NCCAM’s destruction.

Because our previous calls for the closing of a relatively small government institute because we view it as a poor use of taxpayer money is just like calling for the downfall of the United States government. Weeks clearly likes ridiculously overblown hyperbole. Interestingly enough, what appeared to upset Mr. Weeks the most was our discussion of homeopathy with Dr. Briggs. As Steve put it:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia

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In honor of World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2010, part 2

As I pointed out yesterday, World Homeopathy Awareness Week began yesterday. One common question that’s asked about homeopathy goes something like this: If homeopathy is just water, then what’s the harm?

Here’s the harm:

Part 1

Part 2

Homeopathy is magical thinking, far more religious or superstitious in nature than medical or scientific. And this form of magical thinking can lead people people to eschew effective medical therapy, with tragic results.

Posted in: Homeopathy

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