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Placebo, Are You There?

By Jean Brissonnet, translation by Harriet Hall

Note: This was originally published as “Placebo, es-tu là?” in Science et pseudo-sciences 294, p. 38-48. January 2011. It came to my attention in the course of an e-mail correspondence with the editors of that magazine, where one of my own articles was published in French translation in January 2015. I thought this was the best explanation of placebo that I had ever read. It covers the same points my colleagues and I have addressed and more. It describes the pertinent research and uses particularly effective graphs to illustrate the principles (a picture is worth a thousand words). The author, Jean Brissonnet, kindly gave his permission for me to translate it and share it with our readers.


In fact, you don’t need to give a placebo to get a placebo effect and therefore we can now think about how we can maximize the placebo component of routine care.

~ Damien Finniss, 2010

The scene takes place in a surgical suite where they are preparing to do a cataract operation. The patient is lying on the operating table. A few minutes earlier the anesthetic gel was applied to the cornea to permit an operation under simple local anesthesia. The surgeon arrives in the company of the anesthetist. They are engaged in a spirited discussion and don’t seem to be agreeing.

“It has been proven,” says the surgeon, “that 30% of the action of a medical treatment is due to the placebo effect.”

“I doubt that,” retorts his interlocutor, “I think that placebo story is one of those medical myths on a par with the idea that we only use 10% of our brain, that nails and hair grow after death, or that cellphones create interference in hospitals.”[1]

“No,” insists the surgeon with a superior tone, “the fact is established and has been proven by numerous studies.”

The anesthetist shakes his head with a slight smile, but he doesn’t reply. As for the patient, who might have much to say on the subject, he keeps quiet, because it would not be prudent to argue with someone who is about to suck the lens out of your eye.

This true anecdote would not be of interest if it didn’t concern two members of the medical profession. Why such uncertainty? Why such lack of knowledge about such a fundamental subject? This faith in an all-powerful, magical, and mysterious placebo is common among the general public and it serves as justification for resorting to unconventional medicines that have never been able to show solid proof of efficacy; but we see that it still persists among the medical profession.

To know whether the placebo effect is real or should be relegated to the same category as poltergeists, it will help to go back in history.

cartoon

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Is the Ebola Crisis a Reason to Skip RCTs?

Ebola virus

 

In a recent “Perspective” article in The New England Journal of Medicine, three physicians (Drs. Cox, Borio, and Temple) make a strong case for not letting the rush to save Ebola patients tempt us to deviate from good science and skip the randomized controlled trial (RCT). Their arguments cut to the essence of the scientific approach to medicine, and they deserve careful consideration.

Ebola is uniquely scary

Ebola is the kind of threat that really gets our attention. The virus was first identified in 1976, and prior to 2013 there were several small outbreaks in Africa with death rates as high as 90%. This time the death rates are lower, but the numbers are much greater. It has spread to several African countries, and a few cases have even reached the US and Europe due to infected travelers and health care workers. We face a risk that Ebola may become endemic, smoldering along as a constant presence in Africa.

There is no known effective treatment. Fear of Ebola has sparked bizarre conspiracy theories and claims of “natural” cures and prevention kits from homeopaths, alternative medicine advocates like Mercola, and purveyors of remedies like colloidal silver and essential oils. These have been covered on SBM here, here, and here. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Medicine’s Beautiful Idea

For most of human history, doctors have killed their patients more often than they have saved them. An excellent new book, Taking the Medicine: A Short History of Medicine’s Beautiful Idea, and Our Difficulty Swallowing It, by Druin Burch, MD, describes medicine’s bleak past, how better ways of thinking led to modern successes, and how failure to adopt those better ways of thinking continues to impede medical progress.

The moral is not that doctors once did foolish things. The moral is that even the best of people let themselves down when they rely on untested theories and that these failures kill people and stain history. Bleeding and mercury have gone out of fashion, untested certainties and overconfidence have not.

Burch’s conversation with his rowing coach epitomizes the problem:

“I want you to keep your heart rate at 85% of max for the next hour and a half.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s the best way to improve your fitness.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve done it before and it worked. Because that’s what the people who win the Olympics do. I know, I’ve trained some of them.”
“But has anyone actually done an experiment?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”

This book is Burch’s answer to his coach’s question. Medicine’s “beautiful idea” is that we should test all hypotheses and beliefs using the kind of tests that are reliable for determining the truth. Instead of going by tradition, authority, theory, common sense, or personal experience, we now have effective tools to find out for sure whether a treatment really works. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Science and Medicine

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