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The continuum of surgical research in science-based medicine

Editor’s note: Three members of the SBM blogging crew had a…very interesting meeting on Friday, one none of us expected, the details of which will be reported later this week–meaning you’d better keep reading this week if you want to find out. (Hint, hint.) However, what that means is that I was away Thursday and Friday; between the trip and the various family gatherings I didn’t have time for one of my usual 4,000 word screeds of fresh material. However, there is something I’ve been meaning to discuss on SBM, and it’s perfect for SBM. Fortunately, I did write something about it elsewhere three years ago. This seems like the perfect time to spiff it up, update it, and republish it. In doing so, I found myself writing far more than I had expected, making it a lot more different from the old post than I had expected, but I guess that’s just me.

In the meantime, the hunt for new bloggers goes on, with some promising results. If we haven’t gotten back to you yet (namely most of you), please be patient. This meeting and the holiday–not to mention my real life job–have interfered with that, too.

The continuum of surgical research in science-based medicine

One of the things about science-based medicine that makes it so fascinating is that it encompasses such a wide variety of modalities that it takes a similarly wide variety of science and scientific techniques to investigate various diseases. Some medical disciplines consist of mainly of problems that are relatively straightforward to study. Don’t get me wrong, though. By “straightforward,” I don’t mean that they’re easy, simply that the experimental design of a clinical trial to test a treatment is fairly easily encompassed by the paradigm of randomized clinical trials. Medical oncology is just one example, where new drugs can be tested in randomized, double-blinded trials against or in addition to the standard of care without having to account for many difficulties that arise from difficulties blinding. We’ve discussed such difficulties before, for instance, in the context of constructing adequate placebos for acupuncture trials. Indeed, this topic is critical to the application of science-based medicine to various “complementary and alternative medicine” modalities, which do not as easily lend themselves to randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trials, although I would hasten to point out that, just because it can be very difficult to do such trials is not an excuse for not doing them. The development of various “sham acupuncture” controls, one of which consisted even of just twirling a toothpick gently poked onto the skin, shows that.

One area of medicine where it is difficult to construct randomized controlled trials is surgery. The reasons are multiple. For one thing, it’s virtually impossible to blind the person doing the surgery to what he or she is doing. One way around that would be to have the surgeons who do the operations not be involved with the postoperative care of the patients at all, while the postoperative team doesn’t know which operation the patient actually got. However, most surgeons would consider this not only undesirable, but downright unethical. At least, I would. Another problem comes when the surgeries are sufficiently different that it is impossible to hide from the patient which operation he got. Moreover, surgery itself has a powerful placebo effect, as has been shown time and time again. Even so, surgical trials are very important and produce important results. For instance, I wrote about two trials for vertebral kyphoplasty for ostoporotic fractures, both of which produced negative results showing kyphoplasty to be no better than placebo. Some surgical trials have been critical to defining a science-based approach to how we treat patients, such as trials showing that survival rates are the same in breast cancer treated with lumpectomy and radiation therapy as they are when the treatment is mastectomy. Still, surgery is a set of disciplines where applying science-based medicine is arguably not as straightforward as it is in many specialties. At times, applying science-based medicine to it can be nearly as difficult as it is to do for various CAM modalities, mainly because of the difficulties in blinding. That’s why I’m always fascinated by strategies by which we as surgeons try to make our discipline more science-based.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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