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Uncertainty in Medicine

snowball
Medicine is an uncertain business. It is an applied science, applying the results of basic science knowledge and clinical studies to patients who are individuals with differing heredity, environment, and history. It is commonly assumed that modern science-based doctors know what they are doing, but quite often they don’t know for certain. Different doctors interpret the same evidence differently; there is uncertainty about how valid the studies’ conclusions are and there is still considerable uncertainty and disagreement about things like guidelines for screening mammography and statin prescriptions.

Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven Hatch, MD, is a book about uncertainty in medicine. The title refers to the difficulty of interpreting a mammogram, trying to pick out the shadows that signify cancer from a veritable blizzard of similar shadows. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Tai Chi versus physical therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: How CAM “rebranding” works

Tai Chi versus physical therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: How CAM “rebranding” works

“Complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently referred to as “integrative medicine” by its proponents, consists of a hodge-podge of largely unrelated treatments that range from seemingly reasonable (e.g., diet and exercise) to pure quackery (e.g., acupuncture, reiki and other “energy medicine”) that CAM proponents are trying furiously to “integrate” as coequals into science-based medicine. They do this because they have fallen under the sway of an ideology that posits a false dichotomy: To practice true “holistic” and “preventative” medicine, physicians and other health care professionals must embrace the pre-scientific, pseudoscientific, or anti-scientific ideas about medicine that underlie much of the “alternative medicine” being “integrated.”

Unfortunately, they’ve been largely successful over the last 25 years or so. From my perspective, the strategy that has been the most effective in mainstreaming quack practices as part of “integrative medicine” has been what I like to call the “rebranding” of practices that could and should be part of standard, science-based medicine. I’m referring, of course, to nutrition and dietary interventions, as well as lifestyle interventions, specifically exercise. To the extent that standard medicine might have undervalued such interventions over the past few decades, we practitioners of science-based medicine might be said, to some extent at least, to have brought this on ourselves. On the other hand, it is not as though doctors haven’t been advising our patients to quit smoking and moderate their drinking and to lose weight through altering their diet and exercising more for many decades. We do this because we know it works. For instance, when some naturopathic quack touts “curing” type II diabetes with a vegan diet plus exercise, we know that can work because we know that losing weight can normalize blood sugar values in many cases of type II diabetes. Heck, the Endocrine Society itself even says so, declaring “lifestyle optimization” as “essential for all patients with diabetes” and recommending that all patients with type II diabetes “strive to attain and maintain an optimal weight through a primarily plant-based diet high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, with limited intake of saturated fatty acids and avoidance of trans fats,” that they lose weight through physical activity, and get enough rest. A vegan diet just takes that dietary advice to an unnecessary extreme, and any supplements recommended are almost always unnecessary.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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CAM use and chemotherapy: A negative correlation

It turns out that the use of certain forms of CAM makes it less likely that breast cancer patients will receive the chemotherapy they need.

It turns out that the use of certain forms of CAM makes it less likely that breast cancer patients will receive the chemotherapy they need.

So-called “alternative” medicine is made up of a hodge-podge of health care practices and treatments based on beliefs that are unscientific, pre-scientific, and pseudoscientific. These modalities include practices as diverse as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, reflexology, reiki and other forms of “energy medicine” based on vitalism, chiropractic, and naturopathy, and that’s a short list of the quackery that falls under the rubric of the term “alternative medicine.” Unfortunately, this unscientific, pre-scientific, and pseudoscientific hodge-podge of treatments rooted in nonsense is rapidly being “integrated” into real medicine, thanks to an unfortunately influential movement in medicine whose members have been seduced into thinking that there might be something to them and view “integrating” them into medicine as means of practicing more “holistic” and “humanistic” medicine. This “integration” started out by being called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) but now among believers the preferred term is usually “integrative medicine,” largely because it eliminates the word “alternative,” which implies (correctly) that the modality is not real medicine, and “complementary,” which implies a subsidiary status, a status of being nice to have but not essential.

Particularly harmful is the hostility towards conventional medicine that often strongly correlates with use of alternative medicine. Indeed, some people even choose to rely on alternative medicine instead of real medicine to treat cancer. Unsurprisingly, the results of such a decision are generally not very good. Actually, they are almost always terrible. Very, very terrible indeed. Not surprisingly, the use of alternative medicine is associated with bad outcomes. Cancer patients who might have survived die because of it. It’s not as though it hasn’t been studied either, although the main studies I’m aware of tend to look at the bad outcomes in patients who choose alternative medicine. There is another question, and it’s one that a new study published in JAMA Oncology last week seeks to answer. It’s a study that briefly made the news, producing headlines like:
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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Change.org Petition: “Naturopaths are not physicians: stop legitimizing pseudoscience”

change.org

Britt Hermes, a graduate of the naturopathic college at the alternative medicine-focused Bastyr University, renounced her practice as a naturopathic doctor when she could no longer tolerate the pseudoscience and patient harm that characterizes naturopathy. On this blog and her own, Naturopathic Diaries, she has chronicled the insufficient education and training students receive before being allowed to practice as naturopathic doctors, deficiencies which all too readily can result in patient harm.

Her activism is not confined to blog posts. Her advocacy helped prevent an expansion of naturopathic prescribing privileges in North Dakota in 2015. Just this past Friday, she participated, as did I, in a presentation via conference call to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs (DORA), organized by the Colorado Citizens for Science in Medicine. DORA will soon issue a report on the continued registration of naturopaths in that state. In her testimony, Britt told how her own naturopathic education and training made her woefully unprepared to practice.

A number of SBM commenters have wondered how they could do more to combat naturopathic efforts to become licensed as health care providers in all 50 states, as well as participating in Medicare, Medicaid and other publicly-funded programs. Britt just started a Change.org petition urging policy makers and legislators to “stop legitimizing pseudoscience.” She also posted some excellent talking points to rebut the misleading information naturopaths give lawmakers when lobbying. You can help by using the talking points in combating legitimization of naturopathy through licensing and inclusion in public insurance programs. You can also help by signing the petition and sending it around to others on your social media accounts.

Posted in: Announcements, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Australian Chiropractor Ian Rossborough Promises to Stop Treating Children…for Twenty Days

kangaroochiro

An Australian chiropractor treating a baby kangaroo makes as much sense as treating a human child

Before I begin this brief update to my recent post on Australian baby chiropractor Ian Rossborough’s “crack heard round the world,” I want to give a quick thanks to Jann Bellamy for organizing our day of Science-Based Medicine at NECSS last week. It was an amazing experience sharing the stage with the SBM crew for my first public presentation, and finally getting to meet Scott, John, and Saul. I’ve given hundreds of lectures to residents and students, and even a grand rounds or two, but this was orders of magnitude more exciting and stressful. I may be biased, but I think we nailed it.

With NECSS prep taking up a significant percentage of my time and a rough current work week making up for days off, my post today is a little shorter than usual. My overall average word count still gives Gorski a run for his money however. Well, that’s not actually true. Gorski is in another league.

Rossborough provides an undertaking?

Chiropractor Ian Rossborough, who I recently discussed in a post on the backlash against pediatric chiropractic in Australia, has received the slap on the wrist I sadly expected. According to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency website, which has jurisdiction over the Chiropractic Board of Australia when it comes to “professional conduct, performance or health of registered health practitioners,” Rossborough has promised to leave them kids alone:
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Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine

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Where science meets supplements

Various herbal remedies and supplements.

Various herbal remedies and supplements.

For those of you that missed the Science-Based Medicine day at NECSS last week, I’ve put the highlights in the following post:

The supplement industry is big business, and the popularity of these products seems to keep growing. I once worked at a small independent pharmacy that specialized in supplements, homeopathy and “alternative medicine” as way to differentiate itself from the big chain pharmacies. A lot has changed in a decade. Today, even national chain pharmacies have aisles and aisles of herbal remedies, dietary supplements, and even homeopathy. Yet despite the preponderance of products on store shelves, there is little evidence to suggest that supplements are necessary or even improve health (and may even cause harm). The right for consumers to buy products for themselves, and make their own self-care decisions, is an important one that respects individual autonomy. Regrettably, the regulations of these products are so weak and ineffective that the sale of these products quite possibly harms, rather than helps, the average consumer. The system is rigged against consumers, and it prevents the use of supplements in an evidence-based way. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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National Academy of Sciences Report on GMOs

NASGMOreportDespite the fact that numerous scientific and health organizations around the world have examined the evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and found them to be completely safe, there remains a public controversy on this topic. In fact a Pew Poll found that while 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption, only 37% of the public do – a 51% gap, the largest in the survey.

This gap is largely due to an aggressive anti-GMO propaganda campaign by certain environmental groups and the organic food industry, a competitor which stands to profit from anti-GMO sentiments. There is also a certain amount of generic discomfort with a new and complex technology involving our food.

Because of all this, the National Academy of Sciences put together an expert committee to systematically review all the evidence regarding this new technology. Their thorough 407 page report is now available.

They pulled together experts with diverse backgrounds, and also took public comment and solicited input from a wide range of interests. They decided specifically not to rely on any previous review, but to conduct their own review of the primary literature. (more…)

Posted in: Public Health

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Hormone Replacement Therapy for Menopausal Symptoms: Setting the Record Straight

HRT
Whether you call them hot flashes or “power surges,” the symptoms of menopause can be very distressing. They were routinely treated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) until the Women’s Health Initiative study in 2002 persuaded many patients and doctors to abandon that treatment. The results of that study were misunderstood by some and questioned by others, and there continues to be confusion about what the evidence shows and how menopausal symptoms should be treated. We have learned much more about this subject since 2002. HRT is still the most effective treatment and can be used safely under the new treatment guidelines.

The history of hormone replacement therapy

In the second half of the 20th century, there was much enthusiasm about estrogen. Mimicking the estrogen levels of a young woman was seen as a way to remain young and healthy. Doctors recognized that there were risks, but they seemed minor. There were studies showing that HRT protected women from the increased risk of heart disease after menopause. Few if any doctors prescribed it solely to prevent heart disease, but cardiovascular protection and osteoporosis prevention were seen as added benefits that served to tip the balance towards a decision to prescribe it for menopausal symptoms.

Then the Women’s Health Initiative study (WHI) dropped a bomb. It found that HRT didn’t protect women from cardiovascular disease after all. It showed that HRT did more harm than good. The number of prescriptions dropped by as much as 80%. Many women turned to alternative treatments that had not been studied anywhere near as extensively as HRT. (more…)

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology, Pharmaceuticals

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Nobody licenses quacks in my state! HB 4531 and the licensing of naturopaths in Michigan

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.

Just as nobody steps on a church in Peter Venkman's Manhattan, nobody licenses quacks in my state...I hope.

Just as no giant marshmallow man steps on a church in Peter Venkman’s Manhattan, nobody licenses quacks in my state…I hope.

Over the years, I’ve taken care of women with locally advanced breast cancer so advanced that it’s eroded through the skin, forming huge, nasty ulcers filled with stinky dead cancer tissue that’s outgrown its blood supply, leaving the patient in chronic pain. If the patient is fortunate, her cancer has not metastasized beyond her axillary lymph nodes (the lymph nodes under her arm), and her life might still be saved by a combination of chemotherapy, radical surgery, and radiation. If the patient is not fortunate, either the cancer has metastasized and she is doomed or hasn’t metastasized yet, but it’s invaded into the chest wall and the nerves in her axilla (the structures under the arm), making it impossible to remove surgically but not likely to kill her any time soon. In the latter case, chronic pain, infection, and blood loss is what the patient will look forward to until the cancer either metastasizes or invades a vital structure. Fortunately, I’ve only seen a handfull of these patients over the last 20 years. Fortunately, the number of such patients I’ve seen and taken care of has been small.

I fear that, before long, I’m going to bee seeing a lot more of them. Leave it to Jann Bellamy to wake me up to that possibility.

I’m referring, of course, to her post last week about yet another attempt by naturopaths to expand their scope of practice. Worse, this is happening in my state through Michigan House Bill 4531, which has been approved by the Michigan Committee on Health Policy and referred to the full House for consideration. Yes, of these patients I’ve seen with horrific neglected breast cancers, at least half of them had relied on naturopaths before they came to the attention of real oncologists and surgeons. The last time I wrote about naturopaths trying to expand their scope of practice in my state was in 2013 in the form of a bill that was not as broad as HB 4531, namely HB 4152. Fortunately, it went nowhere and, in contrast to HB 4531, didn’t even make it out of the Committee on Health Policy.

Although Jann has already ably discussed the bill and occasional Science-Based Medicine (SBM) contributor Peter Lipson has referred to naturopaths as fake doctors in white coats (which is true), as well as why naturopathy is unscientific and how he as a primary care internist not infrequently has to clean up the messes left when local naturopaths treat patients incompetently, this is my state, and I can’t help but chime in myself. What I will try to do is to predict what the potential consequences will be if HB 4531 passes and expands the scope of practice to be nearly as broad as that of MDs practicing primary care medicine. I will do that by looking at real world examples of naturopathic shenanigans and disasters both within our very own state, because these are the people with whom the reins of primary care will be shared if HB 4531 were to pass.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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“Integrative” medicine versus “alternative” medicine

“Integrative” medicine versus “alternative” medicine

I’ve written a lot about the language issue with respect to alternative medicine. As I like to put it (at least in shortened form), first there was quackery. Quacks did not like that name at all, and thus was born alternative medicine. And the quacks did think it good—for a while. There was a problem, however. “Alternative” medicine implied (correctly, of course) that what was being discussed was not real medicine, and the quacks could not abide that. Thus was born “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM).

And the quacks thought this very good indeed.

Unfortunately, it was not long before the problem with the term CAM became apparent. It had the word “complementary” in it. The implication of that word, of course, is that what they were doing was still somehow not real medicine. It was complementary to real medicine, the icing on the cake, if you will. Real medicine could do without it, and having that implication in the very name that their evolving specialty had taken on was offensive to the quacks.

So they changed it.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Science and the Media

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