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Being Right Versus Being Influential

On May 9th I had the pleasure of lecturing to an audience of critical thinkers at the NYC Skeptics meeting. The topic of discussion was pseudoscience on the Internet – and I spent about 50 minutes talking about all the misleading health information and websites available to (and frequented by) patients. The common denominator for most of these well-intentioned but misguided efforts is a fundamental lack of understanding of the scientific method, and the myriad ways that humans can fool ourselves into perceiving a cause and effect relationship between unrelated phenomena.

But most importantly, we had the chance to touch upon a theme that has been troubling me greatly over the past couple of years: the rise in influence of those untrained in science on matters of medicine. I have been astonished by the ability of “thought leaders” like Jenny McCarthy to gain a broad platform of influence (i.e. Oprah Winfrey’s TV network) despite her obviously flawed beliefs about the pathophysiology of autism. Why is it so hard to find a medical voice of reason in mainstream media?

The answer is probably related to two issues: first, good science makes bad television, and second, physicians are going about PR and communications in the wrong way. We are taught to put emotions aside as we carefully weigh evidence to get to the bottom of things. But we are not taught to reinfuse the subject with emotion once we’ve come to an impartial consensus. Instead, we tend to bicker about statistical analyses, and alienate John Q. Public with what appears to him as academic minutiae and hair-splitting.

I’m not sure what we can or should offer in place of our “business as usual” behavior – but I’ve noticed that being right isn’t the same as being influential. I wonder how we can better advance the cause of science (for the sake of public health at a minimum) to an audience drawn more to passion than to substance?

I would really enjoy your input, dear readers of Science Based Medicine, because I’m at a loss as to what we should do next to reach people in our current culture, and with new communications platforms. What would you recommend?

Posted in: General, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Placebo Therapies: Are They Ethical?

Is it ethical to overstate the efficacy of a treatment option, if it might lead to a patient’s enhanced experience of that treatment? Your response to this question may reveal the degree to which you favor Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Let me explain.

As far as I can tell, no CAM treatment has been proven effective beyond placebo. (If you’re not convinced of this, I suggest you take a look at Barker Bausell’s book on the subject.) That means that treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, Reiki, energy healing, Traditional Chinese Medicine (such as cupping), and others (like “liver flushes”) perform about as well as placebos (inert alternatives) in head-to-head studies. Therefore, the effects of these treatments cannot be explained by inherent mechanisms of action, but rather the mind’s perception of their value. In essence, the majority of CAM treatments are likely to be placebo therapies, with different levels of associated ritual.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that CAM therapies are in fact placebos – the question then becomes, is it ethical to prescribe placebos to patients?  It seems that many U.S. physicians believe that it is not appropriate to overstate potential therapeutic benefits to patients. In fact, the AMA strictly prohibits such a practice:

“Physicians may use [a] placebo for diagnosis or treatment only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.”

Moreover, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes:

“Outside the setting of clinical trials, there is no justification for the use of placebos.”

However, there is some wavering on the absolute contraindication of placebos. A recent survey conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic asked physicians if it was permissible to give a dextrose tablet to a non-diabetic patient with fibromyalgia if that tablet was shown to be superior to no treatment in a clinical trial. In this case 62% of respondents said that it would be acceptable to give the pill.

The authors note:

“Before 1960, administration of inert substances to promote placebo effects or to satisfy patients’ expectations of receiving a prescribed treatment was commonplace in medical practice. With the development of effective pharmaceutical interventions and the increased emphasis on informed consent, the use of placebo treatments in clinical care has been widely criticized. Prescribing a placebo, it is claimed, involves deception and therefore violates patients’ autonomy and informed consent. Advocates of placebo treatments argue that promoting the placebo effect might be one of the most effective treatments available for many chronic conditions and can be accomplished without deception.”

How do you feel about placebos? Are they a legitimate option in some cases, or a violation of patient autonomy and informed consent?
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Posted in: General, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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When fraud undermines science-based medicine

The overriding them, the raison d’être if you will, of this blog is science-based medicine. However, it goes beyond that in that we here at SBM believe that science- and evidence-based medicine is the best medicine. It’s more than the best medicine, though; it’s the best strategy for medicine to improve therapy for our patients. We frequently contrast science-based medicine with various forms of “complementary and alternative medicine,” specifically pointing out that SBM changes its practices as new science and new evidence mandates it while CAM tends to rely on ancient, vitalistic, pre-scientific or pre-modern scientific beliefs about how disease occurs as the basis for its therapies. Although it may be painfully slow and frustrating at times and even though there may be major stumbles along the way, the overall course of SBM over the last century has in general been to produce ever more effective therapies and to discard therapies that are either ineffective or whose risk-benefit ratios are insufficiently favorable. The one single most important thing behind the advancement of medicine is good science.

That’s why I really, really hate scientific fraud, and I’m really, really upset, perhaps even more so than Dr. Atwood, over the discovery last week of what is arguably one of the most massive scientific frauds in medical history. It doesn’t matter that Dr. Atwood is an anaesthesiologist and I am not, meaning that the specific scientific fraud unearthed, which was perpetrated by an anesthesiologist studying multimodal anesthesia, as reported in Anesthesiology News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. I am a surgeon, and the relief of surgical pain in my patients is an important part of my practice. If the scientific basis of what my colleagues in anesthesiology do before, during, and after my operations is called into doubt, I have to wonder if I am giving my patients the best surgical care. Aside from that, there is the intellectual outrage I feel as a result of seeing science and patients betrayed in such a systematic and blatant manner.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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How To Get Physicians To Use The Same Science-Based Playbook

Pretty much everyone agrees that we need to improve the quality of healthcare delivered to patients in the US. We’ve all heard the frightening statistics from the Institute of Medicine about medical error rates – that as many as 98,000 patients die each year as a result of them – and we also know that the US spends about 33% more than most industrialized country on healthcare, without substantial improvements in outcomes.

However, a large number of quality improvement initiatives rely on additional rules, regulations, and penalties to inspire change (for example, decreasing Medicare payments to hospitals with higher readmission rates, and decreasing provider compensation based on quality indicators). Not only am I skeptical about this stick vs. carrot strategy, but I think it will further demoralize providers, pit key stakeholders against one another, and cause people to spend their energy figuring out how to game the system than do the right thing for patients.

There is a carrot approach that could theoretically result in a $757 billion savings/year that has not been fully explored – and I suggest that we take a look at it before we “release the hounds” on hospitals and providers in an attempt to improve healthcare quality.

I attended the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on budget options for health care reform on February 25th. One of the potential areas of substantial cost savings identified by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is non evidence-based variations in practice patterns. In fact, at the recent Medicare Policy Summit, CBO staff identified this problem as one of the top three causes of rising healthcare costs. Just take a look at this map of variations of healthcare spending to get a feel for the local practice cultures that influence treatment choices and prices for those treatments. There seems to be no organizing principle at all.

Senator Baucus (Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) appeared genuinely distressed about this situation and was unclear about the best way to incentivize (or penalize) doctors to make their care decisions more uniformly evidence-based. In my opinion, a “top down” approach will likely be received with mistrust and disgruntlement on the part of physicians. What the Senator needs to know is that there is a bottom up approach already in place that could provide a real win-win here.
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Posted in: General, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Research, Minus Science, Equals Gossip

“A person is smart. People are stupid.”

- Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), Men In Black

Regular readers of my blog know how passionate I am about protecting the public from misleading health information. I have witnessed first-hand many well-meaning attempts to “empower consumers” with Web 2.0 tools. Unfortunately, they were designed without a clear understanding of the scientific method, basic statistics, or in some cases, common sense.

Let me first say that I desperately want my patients to be knowledgeable about their disease or condition. The quality of their self-care depends on that, and I regularly point each of them to trusted sources of health information so that they can be fully informed about all aspects of their health. Informed decisions are founded upon good information. But when the foundation is corrupt – consumer empowerment collapses like a house of cards.

There is growing support in the consumer-driven healthcare movement for a phenomenon known as “the wisdom of crowds.” The idea is that the collective input of a large number of consumers can be a driving force for change – and is a powerful avenue for the advancement of science. It was further suggested (in a recent lecture on Health 2.0), that websites that enable patients to “conduct their own clinical trials” are the bold new frontier of research. This assertion betrays a lack of understanding of basic scientific principles. In healthcare we often say, “the plural of anecdote is not data” and I would translate that to “research minus science equals gossip.” Let me give you some examples of Health 2.0 gone wild:

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Posted in: General, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Where Does Sanjay Gupta Register On The Quackometer?

Four weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Sanjay Gupta’s nomination by the Obama administration as our potential new Surgeon General. Many of you voiced concerns about Sanjay’s nomination, specifically because of his poor handling of the Raelians’ Clonaid fiasco, his inability to counter Michael Moore’s health statistics as presented in Sicko and his relationship to the pharmaceutical industry.

As I wondered about what Sanjay Gupta might be like as Surgeon General – and specifically how he might assist in “restoring science to its rightful place” – I decided to educate myself about his thought processes by purchasing his recent book “Chasing Life.” The question I sought to answer was, “is Sanjay Gupta a crank?”

The short answer is: I’m not sure.  Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is a crank, I think he’s more likely to be a shruggie. For those of you who haven’t read my post on shruggies, here’s the definition:

Shruggie (noun): a person who doesn’t care about the science versus pseudoscience debate. When presented with descriptions of exaggerated or fraudulent health claims or practices, their response is to shrug. Shruggies are fairly inert, they will not argue the merits (or lack thereof) of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or pseudoscience in general. They simply aren’t all that interested in the discussion, and are somewhat puzzled by those who are.

The longer answer involves an exploration of Gupta’s disturbing insistence on flirting with cranks, if it gets him publicity. The back cover of Chasing Life caries an endorsement from Deepak Chopra – and the inside page a favorable review from Andrew Weil. Normally, I would assume that the author of any book endorsed by those two would contain an intolerable blend of science and pseudoscience and refuse to read it. But for the sake of the readers of Science Based Medicine, I stifled my gag reflex and purchased the book. I hope that my sacrifice will benefit you all.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Public Health, Science and the Media

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The Christmas “Miracle”

I noted that “humor” is a designated category at Science Based Medicine, and that I hadn’t made full use of it yet. I hope that the holiday season has put you in the mood for a whimsical look at Christmas – from my “skeptical family” to yours. Enjoy!

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My sister Vicki lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband, three children and an alarmingly large and slobbery Saint Bernard named Gilbert. Several Christmases ago she decided to teach her then 5-year-old son, Harrison, about Christmas tree decorating. She took him to a Christmas tree farm and helped him select a tree. They hauled it back to the house and my sister managed, with no help whatsoever from Gilbert, to set it up in a nice corner of the living room. The tip of the tree reached the ceiling and its full figured branches spread from icy window to window.

Vicki and Harrison spent hours and hours winding lights, tinsel, ornaments, paper angels and popcorn strings around the tree. Little Harrison couldn’t wait to see the final product, with glittering lights and a magical star to top off their fine work. They decorated into the early evening, and the living room grew dark as the sun set over the snow covered neighborhood. At last it was time to plug in the tree lights.

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Posted in: Humor

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Knowledge Versus Expertise: The View From Consumer Land

“The internet, in democratizing knowledge, has led a lot of people to believe that it is also possible to democratize expertise.”

- SBM Commenter, yeahsurewhatever

I’ve spent the last few years of my life in Internet “Consumer Land,” doing what I can to bring accurate health information directly to patients. Of course, I have been surprised by the push-back, and the demand for misinformation. When I first left full time clinical work, it never occurred to me that people would prefer to read falsehoods when provided a clear choice between truth and error. I guess I was pretty naïve.

Journalist Lesley Stahl provided me with some helpful insights during a recent conference. She explained that the Internet has catalyzed a new method of information transfer – speed trumps accuracy, the line between pundits and journalists is blurred, and anyone who can get to a microphone can become an “expert.” Gone are the days of careful sourcing and fact-checking. And gone is the public trust in “mainstream media.”

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Posted in: General, Health Fraud, Humor, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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When Further Research Is NOT Warranted: The “Wisdom of Crowds” Fallacy

Most scientific research studies have at least one thing in common: the conclusion section ends with, “further research is warranted.” I’d say it’s about as common as the “talk to your doctor” disclaimer in TV ads for pharmaceutical products. And in a way, they both serve the same purpose. They’re a “CYA” move.

What does “further research is warranted” mean in plain English? I think it can be roughly translated: “My research study is not of the size or scope to fully explain all the phenomena described in this article. Therefore, draw conclusions beyond the data and study methods at your own risk. And yeah, my work is important and cool – so people should study it further.”

Of course, the first two sentences are reasonable – we should always remember not to draw conclusions beyond the information provided by the data we’ve collected (even though that’s about as challenging as getting a beagle not to eat a table scrap in an empty room). The real problem is the third sentence. Is the research promising enough to require further investment? How are we to know if further research is indeed warranted? I would argue that it should not be based solely on the subjective opinions of the researchers nor the popularity of the research topic to the general public. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, General, Science and Medicine

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