I have been following the story of Dr. Zamboni, an Italian vascular surgeon who claims that multiple sclerosis (MS) is primarily caused by blockages in the veins that drain blood from the brain. This results in backup of blood in the brain, leading to inflammation around the blood vessels and MS. He sought to find the cause and cure for MS because his wife suffers from this disease – and he claims to have found one in his own specialty.
New ideas are presented in science and medicine all the time. This is healthy and necessary – we have to keep churning the pot so that new ideas can emerge and our thinking does not become calcified. But science is both a creative and destructive process, and most new ideas fall victim to the meatgrinder of research and peer-review. Ideally this process will take place mostly within the halls of science, and then those ideas that survive at least initial examination will start to penetrate the broader culture.
This is not what often happens today, however. With the internet and mass media, preliminary speculative studies are often presented to the public as if they are a stunning breakthrough. When the scientific community responds with their typical and completely appropriate skepticism, this may lead some to think that they are being stodgy or dogmatic, or even that a cover-up is in the works. The originator of the speculative claim is usually portrayed as a brave maverick, although sometimes the story can be framed as, “Brilliant scientist or dangerous crank? You decide.” When the topic is a new medical treatment, the stakes can be quite high. In this case many patients with progressive MS are seeking treatment with the so-called liberation procedure to treat the highly speculative CCSVI as an alleged cause for their MS.
This story has all the makings of the kind of scientific and medical drama the mass media loves. While the controversy rages, the science is quietly being done in the background, and the results are not heading in a favorable direction for Zamboni. A recent study, the largest to date, drives a further stake into the heart of CCSVI as a cause of MS.
Some of our readers have complained that we pick on alternative medicine while ignoring the problems in conventional medicine. That criticism is unjustified: we oppose non-science-based medicine wherever we find it. We find it regularly in alternative medicine; we find it less frequently in conventional medicine, but when we do, we speak out. A new book by Dr. Peter Palmieri is aimed squarely at failure to use science-based medicine in conventional practice.
Dr. Palmieri is a pediatrician who strives to provide the best compassionate, cost-effective, science-based care to all his patients. Over 15 years of practice in various settings, he observed that many of his colleagues were practicing substandard medicine. He tried to understand what led to that situation and how it might be remedied. The result is a gem of a book: Suffer the Children: Flaws, Foibles, Fallacies and the Grave Shortcomings of Pediatric Care. Its lessons are important and are not limited to pediatrics: every health care provider and every patient could benefit from reading this book.
The chapters cover these subjects:
How doctors mishandle the most common childhood illnesses
How doctors succumb to parental demands
How they embrace superstition and magical beliefs
How they fall prey to cognitive errors
How they order the wrong test at the wrong time on the wrong patient
How financial conflicts of interest defile the medical profession
How doctors undermine parents’ confidence by labeling their children as ill
I’ve frequently lamented what might happen if the current trend towards quackademic medicine continues unabated, and quackery becomes fully “integrated” with science-based medicine as a co-equal. Interestingly, this concept has provided fodder for several comedians. For example, the first comedy sketch I discovered on this theme was homeopathic e.r. Then a couple of years ago, Mitchell and Webb brought us the British version of essentially the same idea (but done so much better), namely Homeopathic A&E. What I didn’t realize is that predating both of these was…Holistic E.R. (Embedding disabled, unfortunately.)
This sketch comes from an old sketch comedy show known as Almost Live!, which I had never heard of before, but if this sketch is any indication, it was brilliant. Favorite bits from Holistic E.R.: The part about vitamin C, the use of visualization, and, of course, the crystals. Sadly, with the way academic medicine is being infused with quackery such as energy healing, homeopathy, and even anthroposophic medicine at my medical alma mater, I could see this happening within my lifetime.
“Health freedom.” It’s a battle cry frequently used by supporters of “alternative” medicine against what they perceive to be persecution by the medical and scientific establishment that uses the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and other federal agencies charged with regulating pharmaceuticals, food, cosmetics, and medical devices in order to protect the public against fraud, adulterated food, and quackery. It’s a potent argument to those not versed in skepticism and science-based medicine, and even to many who are. After all, Who could argue with “health freedom”? How dare the government tell me what I can and can’t use to treat my own body? Of couse, as I (and others) have said many times before, in reality “health freedom” is a sham. In reality, “health freedom” is not an argument made for the benefit of the consumer; it’s an argument made for the benefit of the sellers of supplements. In practice “health freedom” really means freedom for quacks from any pesky laws and regulations that would prevent them from exercising their quackery.
After spending the first 21 years of life in New Jersey and Philadelphia, I ventured to the University of Florida for graduate school. For those who don’t know, UF is in the north-central Florida city of Gainesville – culturally much more like idyllic south Georgia than flashy south Florida.
It was in Gainesville – “Hogtown” to some – that I first encountered the analgesic powder. I believe it was BC Powder, first manufactured just over 100 years ago within a stone’s throw of the Durham, NC, baseball park made famous by the movie, Bull Durham. I remember sitting with my grad school buddy from Kansas City watching this TV commercial with hardy men possessing strong Southern accents enthusiastically espousing the benefits of BC. I looked at Roger – a registered pharmacist – and asked, “what in the hell is an analgesic powder?”
Despite the variety of health systems across hundreds of different countries, one feature is near-universal: We all depend on private industry to commercialize and market drug products. And because drugs are such an integral part of our health care system, that industry is generally heavily regulated. Yet despite this regulation, little is publicly known about drug development costs. But aggregate research and development (R&D) data are available, and the pharmaceutical industry spends billions per year.
A recent US News and World Report article on the incorporation of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) into US medical schools credulously repeats the pro-CAM marketing hype. There is no evidence that the author, Meryl Davids Landau, spoke to a single critic of CAM, or is even aware that such criticism exists. The result looks more like marketing copy than serious journalism.
Now that nearly 40 percent of American adults swear by some form of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM—from nutrition and mental relaxation to acupuncture, magnet therapy, and foreign healing systems like traditional Chinese medicine and Indian ayurveda—a growing number of medical schools, too, are supplementing medication with meditation.
There is much to deconstruct just in this first paragraph. The entire article in an argument from popularity. This is a game the pro-CAM community has been playing for years. People are using CAM because it’s popular; medical schools should teach it because people are using it; the government should research it because of all the interest in it; and CAM should be popular because it’s being researched and taught in medical schools. CAM is like Paris Hilton – famous for being famous.
Before we had EBM (evidence-based medicine) we had another kind of EBM: experience-based medicine. Mark Crislip has said that the three most dangerous words in medicine are “In my experience.” I agree wholeheartedly. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to discount experience entirely. Dynamite is dangerous too, but when handled with proper safety precautions it can be very useful in mining, road-building, and other endeavors.
When I was in med school, the professor would say “In my experience, drug A works better than drug B.” and we would take careful notes, follow his lead, and prescribe drug A unquestioningly. That is no longer acceptable. Today we ask for controlled studies that objectively compare drug A to drug B. That doesn’t mean the professor’s observations were entirely useless: experience, like anecdotes, can draw attention to things that are worth evaluating with the scientific method.
We don’t always have the pertinent scientific studies needed to make a clinical decision. When there is no hard evidence, a clinician’s experience may be all we have to go on. Knowing that a patient with disease X got better following treatment Y is a step above having no knowledge at all about X or Y. A small step, but arguably better than no step at all. (more…)
“Personalized medicine.” You’ve probably heard the term. It’s a bit of a buzzword these days and refers to a vision of future medicine in which therapies are much more tightly tailored to individual patients than they currently are. That’s not to say that as physicians we haven’t practiced personalized medicine before; certainly we have. However it has only been in the last decade or so that our understanding of genomics, systems biology, and cell signaling have evolved to the point where the vision of personalized medicine based on each patient’s genome and biology might be achievable within my lifetime.
I was thinking about personalized medicine recently because of the confluence of several events. First, I remembered a post I wrote late last year about integrating patient values and experience into the decision process regarding treatment plans. Second, a couple of months ago, Skeptical Inquirer published an execrablynihilistic article by Dr. Reynold Spector in Skeptical Inquirer in which he declared personalized medicine to be one of his “seven deadly medical hypotheses,” even though he never actually demonstrated why it is deadly or that it’s even really a hypothesis. Come to think of it, with maybe–and I’m being very generous here–one exception, that pretty much describes all of Dr. Spector’s “seven deadly medical hypotheses”: Each is either not a hypothesis, not deadly, or is neither of the two. Third, this time last week I was attending the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in Orlando. I don’t really like Orlando much (if you’re not into Disney and tourist traps, it’s not the greatest town to hang out in for four days), but I do love me some good cancer science. One thing that was immediately apparent to me from the first sessions on Sunday and perusing the educational sessions on Saturday was that currently the primary wave in cancer research is all about harnessing the advances in genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and systems and computational biology, as well as the technologies such as next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques to understand the biology of each cancer and thereby target therapies more closely to what biological abnormalities drive each cancer. You can get an idea of this from the promotional video the AACR played between its plenary sessions:
Which is actually a fairly good short, optimistic version of my post Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? As I mentioned before, with this year being the 40th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, as December approaches expect a lot of articles and press stories asking that very question, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I write about this this year. (more…)
I do a lot of driving as part of my job. I am the sole Infectious Disease doctor at three hospitals and I can spend an hour or two a day in the car, depending on traffic. What prevents me from going crazy sitting in traffic is listening to podcasts and audible books. I especially like reading (and yes, audio books is reading, pedant) multivolume epics. Currently I am reading Steven King’s Dark Tower series, which occurs in a universe “where the world has moved on.” In Mid-world there was once a world with science and beauty and art, but something changed, what I do not know yet (I am only on the third volume; no spoilers in the comments), and the world moved on, leaving behind some artifacts of science and technology, but it appears to be an increasingly primitive world. Being fantasy, there is, unlike the world I live in, magic as well.
I like that phrase: “the world has moved on.” (more…)