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Science-based medicine versus the Flint water crisis

This is exactly the sort of cover story you don't want to see about your city in TIME.

This is exactly the sort of cover story you don’t want to see about your city in TIME.

One aspect of science-based medicine that is not covered frequently on this blog, aside from vaccines and antivaccine pseudoscience, but perhaps should be, is the intersection of SBM and public health. Unfortunately, living as I do in southeast Michigan right now, I’ve been on the receiving end of an inescapable lesson in what happens when the government fails in its mission to enforce science-based public health issues. I’m referring, of course, to what has become known worldwide as the Flint water crisis. The Flint water crisis has become so famous that unfortunately it now has its very own Wikipedia page. That is not an “honor” I like to see for my state, and I’m sure the residents of Flint, which is an hour’s drive north of where I live, would agree. This crisis provides an unfortunate illustration of what can easily happen when multiple layers of government fail in a science-based public health task as basic as providing clean water to the citizens they ostensibly serve.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, the Flint water crisis refers to the ongoing contamination of the tap water in Flint, MI with unacceptably high levels of lead that resulted from change in its water supply nearly two years ago to Flint River water. Because river water is more corrosive than the previous supply that came from Lake Huron (why I’ll explain later) and Flint river water was not properly treated to decrease that corrosiveness, the new water leached lead from old pipes. This resulted in the contamination of the drinking water with dangerous levels of lead in many homes in the city. In addition, there has been a marked increase in the number of cases of Legionnaires’ disease thought to be linked to the new water supply.

I was born and raised in Detroit. My parents didn’t move to the suburbs until I was ten years old, and I stayed in southeast Michigan until I graduated from medical school and ended up in Cleveland for my surgical residency and, ultimately, my PhD work. From there I bounced to Chicago and New Jersey. Then, in 2008, nearly twenty years after I had left my hometown, I ended up back in the Detroit area. The point of this story is that my roots in the Detroit area run deep. Michigan is my state, for better or for worse, which is why I get annoyed when bad things happen here. I particularly become outraged when a preventable tragedy occurs here, one that science told us how to prevent but the government went ahead and did anyway. It’s a horrific tale of how science was basically ignored because of politics, and legitimate scientific concerns about a policy that changed the water source for an entire city were downplayed, derided, and even denied by state officials at every level of government. The story has now gone international. Indeed, our state and the city of Flint are featured on the cover of this week’s TIME Magazine.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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The cost of repealing mandatory motorcycle helmet laws

GRcartoon

It’s a seldom mentioned aspect of my professional history that I used to do a lot of trauma surgery in my youth. I did my residency at a program that included a county hospital with a busy trauma program where I saw quite a bit of vehicular carnage and an urban hospital (which has since closed) where I saw a fair amount of what we in the surgery biz call gun and knife club action. During my time as a PhD student, I moonlighted as a flight physician for the local helicopter rescue service, Metro Life Flight, where I took care of patients with everything from cardiac disease requiring transfer to the Cleveland Clinic to near-drownings during the summer at the Lake Erie resorts, particularly Put-in-Bay, to obstetrical transfers (which terrified me) to, of course, the unfortunately copious run-of-the-mill vehicular trauma. I saw the sort of tragedy that could result. Then, in the late 1990s, as I did research for my surgical oncology fellowship in Chicago, I also moonlighted as a trauma attending at a local suburban level II trauma center.

At that point, I realized that trauma was not my thing, as I couldn’t see myself at my present advanced age doing the sort of physically and emotionally demanding work that required fast decisions. It stressed me out too much; which is part of the reason why I went into surgical oncology in the first place. However, I have an appreciation for those who do do trauma. I also realize that trauma is, in a way, the “purest” form of surgery in that it involves taking a body broken by mechanical forces and trying to repair it, all the while keeping the patient alive until the repairs can heal. I will, however, miss the enjoyment I get hearing presentations on tree stand falls during hunting season.

I don’t mention my youthful flirtation with trauma surgery so much because I think it’s something so fascinating that I must tell it. (If that were the case, I’d have been mentioning it much more frequently in my blogs and social media than I have before.) Rather, it lets you know why I was so distressed when this story was forwarded to me a few days ago. It’s a Reuters report entitled “Injuries soar after Michigan stops requiring motorcycle helmets“:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Surgical Procedures

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Is “harnessing the power of placebo” worthwhile to treat anything?

Placebonex
We frequently write about placebo effects here on Science-Based Medicine. The reason is simple. They are an important topic in medicine and, at least as importantly, understanding placebo effects is critical to understanding the exaggerated claims of advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently called “integrative medicine” (i.e., integrating pseudoscience with science). Over the years, I (and, of course, others) have documented how CAM advocates have consistently moved the goalposts with respect to the efficacy of their pseudoscientific interventions. As larger and better-designed clinical trials have been done demonstrating that various CAM therapies without a basis in science—I’m distinguishing these from science-based modalities that have been co-opted and “rebranded” as CAM, such as exercise and nutrition—have no specific effects detectable above placebo effects, CAM advocates move the goalposts and claim that CAM works through the “power of placebo” and do their best to claim that “harnessing” that “power of placebo” is a justification to use their treatments. It turns out, however, that when placebo effects are examined rigorously there’s just not a lot of there there, so to speak. Results are underwhelming, and trying to “harness the power of placebo” without an intervention that actually impacts the pathophysiology of disease can even be dangerous. That’s not to say that learning to maximize placebo responses (whatever they are) while administering effective medical treatments isn’t important; rather, it’s to point out that, by themselves, placebo effects are not of much value.

Unfortunately, none of this has stopped what Steve Novella refers to as the “placebo narrative” from insinuating itself into lay discussions of medicine. That narrative proclaims in breathless terms (as Steve put it) the “surprising power of the placebo effect” without putting it into reasonable perspective or even really defining what is meant by “placebo effect.” First, as we have tried to explain time and time again here, there is no single “placebo effect.” There are placebo effects. Second, the only really correct reference to “the placebo response” or “placebo effect” is the outcome measured in the placebo arm of a clinical trial. The problem is that, all too often, discussions of placebo responses conflate the placebo effect measured in a clinical trial with all the other various placebo effects that add up to the response that is measured in that trial. Those effects include reporting biases, researcher biases, regression to the mean, conditioning, and many other components that contribute to what is measured in the outcome of a clinical trial. Another common misconception about placebo effects is that they are somehow “mind over matter,” that we can heal ourselves (or at least reduce our symptoms) through the power of will and mind. This is not true. Placebo effects are not the power of positive thinking.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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You’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. How soon do you need treatment?

Breast Cancer Surgery
A new year is upon us yet again, and Science-Based Medicine has been in existence for eight years now. It seems only yesterday that Steve Novella approached me to ask me to be a contributor. Our part-serious, part-facetious predictions for 2016 notwithstanding, one thing about 2016 is certain: I will almost certainly encounter some form of cancer quackery or other and deconstruct it, probably multiple forms. In any case, a topic I’ve been meaning to write about is based on a couple of studies that came out three weeks ago that illustrate why, even if a patient ultimately comes around to science-based treatment of his cancer, the delay due to seeking out unscientific treatments can have real consequences.

When a patient with breast cancer comes in to see me, not infrequently I have to reassure her that she doesn’t need to be wheeled off to the operating room tomorrow, that it’s safe to wait a while. One reason, of course, is that it takes years for a cancer to grow from a single cell to a detectable mass. The big question, of course, is: What is “a while”? Two studies published online last month attempt to answer that question. One study (Bleicher et al) comes from Fox Chase Cancer Center and examines the effect of time to surgery on breast cancer outcomes; the other (Chavez-MacGregor et al) is from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and examines the effect of time to chemotherapy on outcome. Both find a detrimental effect due to delays in treatment.
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Posted in: Cancer, Surgical Procedures

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The fine line between quality improvement and medical research

Quality

As I’ve mentioned before, the single biggest difference between science-based medicine (SBM) and what I like to call pseudoscience-based medicine, namely the vast majority of what passes for “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” is that SBM makes an active effort to improve. It seeks to improve efficacy of care by doing basic and clinical research. Then it seeks to improve the quality of care by applying the results of that research to patient care. Yes, the process is complicated and messy, and it frequently doesn’t progress as fast as we would like it to. Sometimes it goes down blind alleys or takes wrong turns, such as when a treatment is adopted too rapidly and determined later to be ineffective. Overall, however, improvement does occur, and it continues to occur. New treatments that work better are discovered. Old treatments that don’t work as well (or that don’t work at all) are abandoned.

There is, however a blurry line between what constitutes medical research and what constitutes quality improvement (QI). A couple of years ago, in one of those unexpected turns that a career can take, an opportunity presented itself for me to become co-director of a statewide quality improvement consortium for breast cancer care in my state. As I’ve alluded to before, it was a case of unexpectedly being in the right place at the right time, of seeing an opportunity and being willing to take it. How I ended up making quality improvement a large part of my career is unimportant. What is important is that it puts me in a unique position among all the other SBM contributors to discuss the interface between science and quality. (It’s also important that I lay down a disclaimer here that this post represents my opinion and my opinion alone; it does not represent the views of the QI with which I’m affiliated, my cancer center, or my university.) In particular, there are ethical considerations that are not obvious, apparently even to someone as brilliant as Steven Pinker, who Tweeted yesterday:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Quality Improvement

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Is scientific peer review a “sacred cow” ready to be slaughtered?

Peer Review

I’ve frequently noted that one of the things most detested by quacks and promoters of pseudoscience is peer review. Creationists hate peer review. HIV/AIDS denialists hate it. Anti-vaccine cranks like those at Age of Autism hate it. Indeed, as a friend of mine, Mark Hoofnagle, pointed out several years ago, pseudoscientists and cranks of all stripes hate it. There’s a reason for that, of course, namely that it’s hard to pass peer review if you’re peddling pseudoscience, although, unfortunately, with the rise of “integrative medicine,” it’s nowhere near as difficult as it once was.

Be that as it may, peer review, the process by which scientific papers are evaluated by scientific “peers” to look for problems with the science and decide if the paper is appropriate for publication in a scientific journal, is a concept that dates back hundreds of years. However, for the most part, before the middle of the 20th century, the ultimate determination of whether a paper was appropriate for scientific publication was made by editors or editorial committees. Opinions of external reviewers were sometimes sought when deemed appropriate by journal editors, but by no means was this the practice for most manuscripts. Over the last six or seven decades, external peer review by scientists chosen by the journal editor evaluating a submission has become the standard. Similarly, decisions regarding whether or not to fund grant applications are now generally made by a panel of external reviewers. In the case of the NIH, these panels are called study sections and consist of scientists with expertise in the types of applications being referred to the study section for evaluation, along with (usually) a statistician or two and officials from the NIH who take care of organizing and running the meetings of the panel. The scientific members of a study section usually include “permanent” members, who are assigned to fixed terms on the study section, and ad hoc members, called in for one or a few meetings as needed and deemed necessary by the NIH.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Michigan HB 5126: Who thought it was a good idea to make it easier for parents to obtain nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates and harder for local county health officials to do their jobs?

The Michigan House of Representatives: Not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

The Michigan House of Representatives: Not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree.

We have a problem with antivaccinationists here in Michigan. It’s a problem that’s been going on a long time that I first started paying attention to in a big way a few years ago when we started seeing pertussis outbreaks again due to low vaccine uptake. It’s a problem that’s persisted as last year we suffered from outbreaks of pertussis and measles, again because of pockets of low vaccine uptake. And what is the reason for these pockets of low vaccine uptake? Well, consistent with what we already know, namely that the risk of pertussis outbreaks is elevated in states where exemptions to school vaccine mandates are easier to get, it’s because our state is one of the worst in the country when it comes to nonmedical exemptions to vaccines. Indeed:

Michigan has one of the highest vaccine-waiver rates for kindergartners in the country, three times the national median, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the number of kindergartners getting vaccine waivers is growing. In five years, it’s increased 23 percent, the CDC says.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Worshiping at the altar of the Cult of the Brave Maverick Doctor

Death of Cancer

One of my favorite television shows right now is The Knick, as I described before in a post about medical history. To give you an idea of how much I’m into The Knick, I’ll tell you that I signed up for Cinemax for three months just for that one show. (After its second season finale airs next Friday, I’ll drop Cinemax until next fall.) The reason why I’m bringing up The Knick (besides I love the show and need to bring it up at least once a year) is because an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker entitled “Tough Medicine“, which is a commentary based on a new book on cancer by a veritable god of cancer research, Vincent T. DeVita, Jr., immediately resonated with a storyline in this season of The Knick. I haven’t yet read The Death of Cancer: After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer Is Winnable–and How We Can Get There by Vincent T. DeVita and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, but I want to. I can tell, though, that there will be parts of the book I find annoying just from Gladwell’s take on it, which approvingly describes DeVita as railing against the cautiousness and incremental nature of today’s cancer research. To give you an idea of where Gladwell’s coming from, I note that his article shows up in the title bar of my web browser not as “Tough Medicine” but rather “How To Cure Cancer”, even as the title on the web page itself remains “Tough Medicine”. On the other hand, the article does conclude with Gladwell demonstrating a better understanding of the disadvantages of what DeVita is proposing than it seems that he will in the beginning. In fact, it is Gladwell who is more reasonable than his subject, although he does appear share DeVita’s apparent assumption that potentially all cancer patients are savable if only we try hard enough. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, History, Medical Ethics

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“Electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi allergies”: Bogus diagnoses with tragic real world consequences

Is there such a thing as an "allergy to wifi"? Lots of people claim there is; science, not so much.

Is there such a thing as an “allergy to wifi”? Lots of people claim there is; science, not so much.

I debated about writing about this topic, given that I just wrote about it last week on my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, as I thought about it during the weekend, I realized that the tragic story that so saddened and disturbed me to prod me to discuss so-called “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” or “electro-hypersensitivity” (EHS) was so horrific that a more detailed, SBM-level discussion was indicated, particularly in light of a similar case electromagnetic hypersensitivity that didn’t end so tragically discussed by Harriet Hall in September. I’m referring, of course, to the case of Jenny Fry, a British teen who hanged herself in June and whose mother has been claiming that her “allergy to wifi” was what drove her to suicide. So, while there will be some overlap with my previous discussion, I will try to step back and take a broader view of the evidence regarding the fake diagnosis of EHS, interspersed with examples (hopefully) illustrating my point. Think of this as the post I wished I had written the first time around but, due to time constraints, couldn’t.

Bogus science and lawsuits over EHS

By way of background, it’s worth briefly revisiting the case that Harriet discussed. Indeed, if you Google “lawsuit” and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi” the first two pages of results consist mostly of articles discussing it. That’s probably because this is just the latest lawsuit that made the news. It happened in Massachusetts, where the parents of a 12-year-old boy (designated “G” in court records) who was attending Fay School in Massachusetts alleged that the school violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make accommodations to protect G from electromagnetic radiation from the school’s wifi routers. From the complaint’s summary statement:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health

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How not to debate a “pro-vaxer”

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

To say that the relationship that antivaccine activists have with science and fact is a tenuous, twisted one is a major understatement. Despite mountains of science that says otherwise, antivaccinationists still cling to the three core tenets of their faith, namely that (1) vaccines are ineffective (or at least nowhere near as effective as health officials claim; (2) vaccines are dangerous, causing autism, autoimmune disease, neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that is misdiagnosed as shaken baby syndrome; and, of course, (3) the Truth (capital-T, of course!) is being covered up by a nefarious combination of big pharma, the medical profession, and the government (in the US, primarily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which works with pediatricians to produce the recommended schedule of vaccines). Because vaccine rejectors don’t have science on their side, they have to resort strategies common to science denialists like those who reject the scientific consensus about evolution or human-caused global climate change. These fallacious strategies include (but are not limited to) selective citation of evidence (i.e., cherry picking), misrepresentation and logical fallacies, impossible expectations about what science can deliver (e.g., vaccine denialists expecting 100% efficacy and 100% safety from vaccines or cancer quacks expecting 100% cure rates and no side effects from chemotherapy); fake experts (e.g., Andrew Wakefield); and, of course, conspiracy theories. Add to that appeals to personal freedom and “health choiceüber alles and painting any form of vaccine mandate as incipient totalitarianism, with those rejecting vaccines taking on the role of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, and you have a pretty good idea of the sorts of arguments antivaccine activists resort to.

Not surprisingly, even the most diehard antivaccine advocate can get frustrated. After all, it must be very frustrating to have one’s posterior handed to one in arguments on the science of vaccines time and time again. Of course, for that purpose, like most science denialists, antivaccine activists have the Internet. In particular, they’ve taken full advantage of Facebook, and, more recently, Twitter. One such online gathering place is the public group known as Vaccine Resistance Movement (VRM). I encourage pro-science advocates to peruse this group, just to see that when I refer to people being anti-vaccine, there is no doubt that that is what they are. It was there that I found a rather telling document posted, for the benefit of antivaccine advocates everywhere.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Vaccines

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