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Facing Decline and Death

Gawande book

Note: Atul Gawande and his book will be featured on a Frontline episode airing on PBS tonight.

We’re all going to die. (There’s nothing like starting on a positive note! :-) ) We’re all going to die, and if we are fortunate enough to survive long enough to become old, we’re all going to experience a decline of one sort or another before we die: reduced hearing and vision, less strength, poorer memory, etc. As a society, and as a medical profession, we have been reluctant to confront those issues head on. Dr. Atul Gawande faces them unflinchingly in his thought-provoking new book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

In a simpler time, there were fewer old people; they were respected for their knowledge and were cared for by their families who supplied their increasing needs as age made them more dependent on others; they died at home surrounded by supportive loved ones. Today we warehouse our elders in nursing homes, where they are denied the independence of even making simple everyday choices like when to get up and when to eat. We consign them to a regimented, less enjoyable, less meaningful life; and they frequently die alone in hospitals, connected to tubes and machines.

Doctors are not always good at making it clear to terminally ill patients that they are going to die soon. They are not always good at discussing end-of-life issues and securing advance directives. They often treat end-of-life diseases so aggressively that they end up causing more suffering or even shortening lives. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Medical Ethics

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A Scientist in Wonderland

Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds. He went from practicing alternative medicine to questioning it, to researching it, to becoming its most prolific critic. I have long admired his work, and I finally met him in person when we were invited to speak at the same conferences. He shattered my stereotype of the stern, formal, self-important German “Herr Professor Doktor.” He was affable, unassuming, and funny; he was even a jazz musician. I wished I knew more about his history, and my wishes have been granted in the form of his new autobiographical book, A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

Edzard Ernst, the early years

Dr. Ernst was born in post-war Germany; his family had suffered greatly during the war and his uncle had been a general in the Waffen SS. He felt slightly ashamed to be German, and as a result he researched and wrote about Nazi health beliefs and medical atrocities so the history of their misdeeds would not be forgotten.

His father was a doctor, his mother an enthusiastic devotee of alternative medicine who subjected him to homeopathy, ice cold baths, and barefoot walks at dawn through wet grass. Early in life, Ernst began to manifest a tendency towards doubt and irreverence, along with an irrepressible sense of curiosity.

Music was his first love. He earned good money when he and his friends spent their summer vacation busking on the beach at St. Tropez, and he had been seriously considering a musical career until his mother persuaded him to study medicine. He earned an MD in Germany, in an environment where alternative medicine was unquestioningly integrated with mainstream medicine. He received hands-on training in acupuncture, autogenic training, herbalism, homeopathy, cupping, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, even leeches. His first job was in a homeopathic hospital where a colleague chose remedies by dowsing with a pendulum. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking

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Another Misguided Cancer Testimonial

An economic analyst, Mike “Mish” Shedlock, wrote a blog post to describe how he beat prostate cancer. When laymen and patients write about cancer, they are likely to get some things wrong. Mish’s story is full of typical misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

He interpreted his experience in his own way and did his own research into the medical literature, something he was not qualified to do. Prostate cancer is a very complex subject, and understanding the implications of published studies for treating patients can be difficult even for experts. In typical Dunning-Kruger fashion, he rejected the advice of his doctors, thinking he could do better.
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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Shedding Light on Unreasonable Decisions

BloodPressure2

One of the biggest frustrations for a doctor is when a patient refuses to take science-based medical advice. We would like to believe that giving a patient accurate information will lead him to make good decisions that will improve his health or save his life. But that’s not how it works. Patients reject life-saving surgery and chemotherapy, patients on essential medications are non-compliant, parents reject vaccines for their children…what are these people thinking? Why would anyone in their right mind knowingly reject a treatment that has been proven to increase their chances for survival and health? What could their reasons possibly be?

This ties into a subject we have debated over and over: why do people choose alternative medicine? Many reasons have been suggested: cost and accessibility, the need for control, dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine, the peer pressure of a popular fad, “belonging” to a group of like-minded people, a need for answers, autonomy, health freedom, ideology, rebellion against authority, a need for hope even if it is false hope, giving more importance to stories than to studies, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, scientific illiteracy, misinformation, superstition, magical thinking…the list goes on. Studies have been done, but we can’t be sure the reasons people give to researchers are the real reasons. There is a problem with the search for reasons: these decisions are not made on the basis of reason. Physician Lisa Rosenbaum has written a beautiful essay in The New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Beyond Belief — How People Feel about Taking Medications for Heart Disease“, that sheds a penetrating light on what is really going on. It made me think of the subject in a whole new way. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking

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Smoking Cessation and the Affordable Care Act

A young child and a chicken — neither of whom should smoke.

A young child and a chicken — neither of whom should smoke.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death. Each year it kills more than 5 million people around the world, 480,000 in the US alone. And for every person who dies, about 30 more have serious illnesses caused by smoking. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers. Anyone who is concerned about preventive medicine must consider smoking cessation a priority. Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has taken a step in the right direction.

The ACA’s provisions

The Affordable Care Act requires health plans and health insurance to cover tobacco-use counseling and interventions without cost sharing or prior authorization. It requires screening of all patients for tobacco use and covering at least two attempts to quit each year. For each quit attempt, it authorizes four tobacco-cessation counseling sessions, each at least ten minutes long (including telephone, group, and individual counseling) and any FDA-approved tobacco-cessation medications (whether prescription or over-the-counter) for a 90-day treatment regimen when prescribed by a health care provider. In a separate provision, it requires that states not exclude FDA-approved cessation medications from existing Medicaid programs. These provisions should encourage providers and patients to increase their smoking cessation efforts. (more…)

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Is the Ebola Crisis a Reason to Skip RCTs?

Ebola virus

 

In a recent “Perspective” article in The New England Journal of Medicine, three physicians (Drs. Cox, Borio, and Temple) make a strong case for not letting the rush to save Ebola patients tempt us to deviate from good science and skip the randomized controlled trial (RCT). Their arguments cut to the essence of the scientific approach to medicine, and they deserve careful consideration.

Ebola is uniquely scary

Ebola is the kind of threat that really gets our attention. The virus was first identified in 1976, and prior to 2013 there were several small outbreaks in Africa with death rates as high as 90%. This time the death rates are lower, but the numbers are much greater. It has spread to several African countries, and a few cases have even reached the US and Europe due to infected travelers and health care workers. We face a risk that Ebola may become endemic, smoldering along as a constant presence in Africa.

There is no known effective treatment. Fear of Ebola has sparked bizarre conspiracy theories and claims of “natural” cures and prevention kits from homeopaths, alternative medicine advocates like Mercola, and purveyors of remedies like colloidal silver and essential oils. These have been covered on SBM here, here, and here. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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The Health Benefits of Moderate Drinking

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

– The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

 1024px-A_glass_of_red_wine

Alcoholic beverages have always inspired strong opinions pro and con. Omar Khayyam included wine in his vision of Paradise; Carrie Nation took a hatchet to saloons. Humans have been drinking alcoholic beverages for at least 12,000 years. In earlier eras beer and wine were dietary staples that provided essential calories and were safer to drink than water. Early cultures worshipped wine deities; today, some religions ban all forms of alcohol while others embrace red wine as an essential part of a holy sacrament. Alcoholic beverages are widely used as an accompaniment to meals and as a social lubricant (as Ogden Nash put it, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker”). Prohibition didn’t work.

It’s always good when opinions can be backed up by scientific evidence. Those who drink, especially wine lovers, can bolster their personal preference with the evidence from recent studies showing that moderate alcohol consumption prolongs life and improves health in various ways. Those who prefer not to drink are being told they can get the same benefits from resveratrol, a component of red wine. Just how good is the evidence, and what does it really tell us? (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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The Marvelous Dr. Mütter

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia has a marvelous collection of human bones, surgical specimens, monsters in jars, and medical memorabilia. It holds attractions for everyone, from the jaded medical professionals who thought they’d seen it all to the coveys of youngsters who compete to point out the grossest items to their friends, from the student of history to the connoisseur of the macabre. There is an enormous megacolon said to look like a sandworm from Dune, a plaster cast of the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng along with their actual preserved conjoined livers, a collection of bizarre swallowed objects, an iron lung, a tumor removed from president Grover Cleveland’s jaw while he was in office, a shocking assortment of deformed fetuses…the list goes on.

I knew about the museum and greatly enjoyed visiting it, but I didn’t know anything about Dr. Mütter himself until I read a delightful new book by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz , Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. I learned that the good doctor was every bit as marvelous as his museum, and the book took me on a fascinating trip back to the medicine of the early 1800s that made me better appreciate all that modern medicine has accomplished.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Surgical Procedures

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Study of “Acupressure” for Constipation

constipationA recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine evaluated a treatment for constipation. It tested whether training patients to massage the perineum (the area between the vagina or scrotum and the anus) would improve their reported bowel function and quality of life at 4 weeks after training. They found that it did. It’s a simple, innocuous treatment that may be worth trying, but why, oh why, did they have to call it “acupressure”? That irritated me. Should it have? Why should it matter? Isn’t a rose by any other name still a rose? Is this a meaningless semantic quibble and hypersensitivity on my part, or am I right to see it as yet another example of quackademia’s attempts to infiltrate science-based medicine? I’ll explain my thinking and let you decide for yourself. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Pesticides: Just How Bad Are They?

3D model of DDT, an insecticide

3D model of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), an insecticide

I think everyone would agree that it would not be a good idea to put pesticides in a saltshaker and add them to our food at the table. But there is little agreement when it comes to their use in agriculture. How much gets into our food? What are the effects on our health? On the environment? Is there a safer alternative?

Where should we look to find science-based answers to those questions? One place we should not look is books written by biased non-scientists to advance their personal agendas. A friend recently sent me a prime example of such a book: Myths of Safe Pesticides, by André Leu, an organic farmer whose opinions preceded his research and whose bias is revealed in the very title. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking, Public Health

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