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Here be Dragons: Caring for Children in a Dangerous Sea of sCAM

Here be dragons large map

As a pediatrician working in a relatively sCAM-inclined region, it is not uncommon to find myself taking care of patients who are also being followed by so-called alternative medicine practitioners. This often creates a major obstacle to providing appropriate care and establishing an atmosphere of mutual trust in the provider-patient/parent relationship. It usually makes me feel like I’m battling invisible serpents in a sea of sCAM.

While these double-dipping parents utilize a variety of sCAM providers, including naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors, and a smattering of “holistic healers”, most are taking their children to one of a few “wellness” centers near my practice where they are seen by actual medical doctors practicing so-called “integrative medicine”. Many of these children have vague, chronic, usually non-specific complaints that are difficult to explain and thus to treat. Some have behavioral and mental health problems, or neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism for which parents are seeking explanations and treatments.

What I find to be a common theme with these patients is that they and their parents are summarily taken advantage of by their alternative care providers when they are given a fictitious diagnosis and treated with a variety of useless potions, elixers, and false hopes. Often, parents bring their children to these providers because they are frustrated by their child’s chronic complaints of fatigue, pain, or other somatic issues that have eluded a satisfactory diagnosis or treatment. Invariably, the diagnosis that has remained so elusive to me is quickly found and treated by these much more “holistic” and open-minded providers. In fact, I have never seen a consultation note from one of these providers indicating any uncertainty as to diagnosis or treatment regimen. Typically a large battery of expensive, inappropriate, and sometimes outright fraudulent lab tests is ordered, often from equally questionable laboratories. Again, there are invariably interesting findings prompting tailored and bizarre treatments. In typical red-flag sCAM fashion, some of these providers have their own supplement store, available online only to their patients, prominently displayed on their website. These providers are perceived as being more holistically informed about health and wellness then “conventional” doctors like myself, as if there are two distinct ways of treating illness and maintaining health…as if there is truly such a thing as alternative medicine.

It can be very difficult to manage patients who are being simultaneously “treated” by such providers. Sometimes the treatments complicate or confuse the picture, but it always indicates a failure of trust in the “conventional” method of practice, which is science and evidence based, and in science itself.

Below are a few examples of patients cared for by my practice and simultaneously followed by alternative medicine practitioners. They provide a good picture of just how problematic these co-practitioners can be. No names or identifying information are revealed. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Don’t just stand there, do nothing! The difference between science-based medicine and quackery

Tree of Life - the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree describing the relationships among groups of organisms (Cambridge University Library).

Tree of Life – the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree describing the relationships among groups of organisms (Cambridge University Library).

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines science as:

Knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.


Knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.

While this should distinguish science from pseudoscience, those who practice the latter often lay claim to the same definition. But one of the major differences between science and pseudoscience is that science advances through constant rejection and revision of prior models and hypotheses as new evidence is produced; it evolves. This is the antithesis of pseudoscience. At the heart of pseudoscience-based medicine (PBM) is dogma and belief. It clings to its preconceptions and never changes in order to improve. It thrives on the intransigence of its belief system, and rejects threats to its dogma. Despite the constant claims by peddlers of pseudoscience that SBM practitioners are closed-minded, we know that, in fact, PBM is the ultimate in closed-minded belief. Of course, those of us who claim to practice SBM aren’t always quick to adopt new evidence. We sometimes continue practices that may once have been the standard of care but are no longer supported by the best available evidence, or perhaps may even be contradicted by the latest evidence. Often this is a byproduct of habituated practice and a failure to keep current with the literature. While this is certainly a failure of modern medicine, it is not an inevitable outcome. It is not emblematic of the practice of medicine, as it is with PBM. When medicine is science-based, it strives for continual improvement based on modifications around emerging evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Ethics, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Hot-Zone Schools and Children at Risk: Shedding light on outbreak-prone schools

The subject of parental vaccine refusal and the impact that has on disease outbreaks has been covered many times on SBM and elsewhere. I apologize to our readers who are growing tired of the subject, but there is perhaps no subject more deserving of focus and repetition. There’s also an important angle to the discussion that I’ve written on previously and which deserves more attention, and that is the importance of the pro-vaccine parent voice, and the need for that voice to be heard.

It never ceases to amaze me how few of the parents I know think about the risk to their own children from vaccine-exempt children in their schools and communities. Even parents who do think about this rarely seem concerned enough to speak up or even discuss it with others, let alone become active in doing something about it. With the rise in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, including the current high-profile Disneyland measles outbreak, and the ongoing pertussis epidemic in California, the tide seems at least to be turning slightly. The dramatic impact that vaccine refusal and the resultant decline in herd-immunity can have on a community is now penetrating the public consciousness. My hope is that parental awareness and outrage grow regarding the flagrant disregard of science, common sense, and citizenship exhibited by those parents who refuse to properly vaccinate their children. My hope is that the culture of tolerance of this intolerable anti-science threat begins to turn, and that it is no longer seen as acceptable for some parents to put the safety of others at risk.

Which brings me to the focus of this post. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Legal, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Legislating Ignorance


Science is under attack, and not just from anti-vaccine celebrities and parents with degrees from Google University. Scientific illiteracy is being woven into the very fabric of our society through legislative assault. If you dismiss this as alarmist hyperbole, you haven’t been paying close enough attention.

Every day thousands of pediatric health care providers throughout the country provide safety advice to patients and their parents during routine health maintenance visits. As part of this important routine we ask a series of standard questions to assess the safety of our patients’ environment. Some of these questions are easy and straightforward, and some are more personal and potentially awkward for patients and their parents, including questions pertaining to sexual practices and preferences and psychosocial history. An important series of questions focuses on potential hazards in the home, such as how toxins and medicines are stored, how pools are secured against curious toddlers, and whether there are guns in the home and how they are stored and secured. Parents are usually appreciative of the advice we provide, and thankful for our concern and attention to these issues. Occasionally patients or parents are taken aback by some of these questions, and very rarely they prefer not to answer them (in my 20 years in practice, I can recall only one time this has occurred). We ask these questions because accidental injuries and deaths are common occurrences in the pediatric population, and there is good evidence that patients tend to follow the advice we provide our patients. (more…)

Posted in: Legal, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Lemons and Lyme: Bogus tests and dangerous treatments of the Lyme-literati


It’s that time of year when every day I can expect to see at least one patient with a concern about Lyme disease. In Lyme-endemic regions such as Western Massachusetts, where I practice pediatrics, summer brings a steady stream of children to my office with either the classic Lyme rash (erythema chronicum migrans, or ECM), an embedded tick, a history of a tick bite, or non-specific signs or symptoms that may or may not be due to Lyme disease. Sometimes the diagnosis is relatively straightforward. A child is brought in after a parent has pulled off an engorged deer tick, and there is a classic, enlarging ECM rash at the site of the bite. More often the presentation is less clear, requiring detective work and science-based reasoning to make an informed decision and a diagnostic and therapeutic plan based on the best available evidence. Depending on the story, the plan may include immediate treatment without any testing (as in the straightforward case described above), immediate testing without treatment pending test results, or waiting as we watch and see how a rash progresses before doing anything. An example of this latter course of action would be when a patient comes in with a pink swelling at the site of a new tick bite. In this case, it may not be clear if the swelling is a Lyme rash or simply a local reaction to the bite, a much more common occurrence. The classic ECM rash (an enlarging, red, circular, bull’s-eye rash at or near a tick bite) typically develops 1-2 weeks after a tick bite, but can occur anywhere from 3-30 days later. It then expands and darkens over another 1-3 weeks before fading. This classic rash is not the most common rash of Lyme disease, however, as it occurs in only about 30% of cases. Instead, the rash may be uniformly pink or red (or even darker in the center) without the target-like appearance, or may be a linear rash, expanding outward from the tick bite site. In the case of a patient who comes in with a vague, pink swelling within a day few days of a tick bite, we will typically wait and see what happens to the rash. If it is a local reaction, it will likely resolve within another few days. With Lyme disease, the rash will continue to enlarge and declare itself as an ECM rash. Another unclear and not uncommon situation is when a patient comes in with non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, musculoskeletal pains, and headache. If warranted by the history and the physical exam, we may in this case order Lyme testing. This may not give us an answer even if the patient has Lyme disease, because results are often negative in the first few weeks of the disease. In this case, if symptoms persist or evolve, we will repeat the testing in another few weeks at which point true Lyme disease will test positive and can then be treated. The good news is that the treatment of Lyme disease, particularly in the early, localized phase of the disease, is extremely safe and effective with a 14-day course of antibiotics. The testing is also relatively straightforward, with very good sensitivity and specificity when performed correctly. And this is where the bad news comes… (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Science and Medicine

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VacciShield: Pixie dust for an imaginary threat


I know by now I shouldn’t be, but I am still amazed by how readily so many people buy into the seemingly endless array of bogus sCAM nostrums. Many are marketed and hawked for the treatment or prevention of diseases that are poorly managed by science-based medicine. There are countless examples of dietary supplements that are purported to effectively treat back and joint pains, depression, anxiety, autism, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue; the list goes on and on. The lure for these treatments is at least understandable and, although frustrated that scientific literacy and rational thought loses out, I empathize with the desire to believe in them. On the other end of the spectrum is the even more ethically corrupt substitution of safe and effective treatments with products that are not. I encountered what I find to be possibly the most frightening and dangerous example of this recently at my practice. A family new to the area called to schedule a routine health-maintenance visit for their 5-year-old daughter. When our nurse reviewed the medical records the mother had faxed over, she noted that the child was unimmunized and explained to her that she would need to begin catch-up vaccinations. The mother matter-of-factly stated that her daughter was actually fully vaccinated with a vaccine alternative. She had received a series of homeopathic vaccines from a naturopath. I am not going to discuss this egregious example of sCAM here, though it was addressed in previous SBM posts.1,2 Instead I’d like to focus on another part of the sCAM spectrum. Here lies a form of sCAM that, in some ways, is even more difficult for me to comprehend. These are products invented, marketed, and sold solely for the treatment or prevention of fictitious diseases or problems that exist only in the realm of fantasy. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Nutrition, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Amber Waves of Woo

As a pediatrician I have an opportunity to observe a wide variety of unusual and sometimes alarming parental efforts meant to help children through illness or keep them well. I have recently noticed one particular intervention that seems to be becoming more prevalent, at least in my practice. I’ve begun to see more and more infants sporting Baltic amber teething necklaces. These consist of multiple small beads of amber on a string that is worn around a baby’s neck, and are supposed to relieve the discomfort of teething. Before I had any idea what these necklaces were for or how they were supposed to work, my first reaction was to inform these parents of the dangers of necklaces or anything placed around an infant’s or young child’s neck. Strangulation is a known cause of accidental injury and death in children, and pediatricians are trained to discuss this as part of the routine anticipatory guidance we give to parents. In addition, we strongly advise against giving infants or young children any small items that could be accidentally aspirated, such as the beads found in a necklace of this sort. But I was equally surprised to learn that these necklaces are not intended for babies to chew or gum. Instead, they are supposed to ease a baby’s teething discomfort simply by lying against the skin.

I will not discuss teething here, or the many myths that surround it; that was well covered in a previous post. I will reiterate that there is little-to-no evidence that the majority of concerns parents have about teething are actually due to teething, including fever and diarrhea. The irritability associated with teething also tends to wax and wane for only several days before and after the emergence of a tooth. But let’s assume for the moment that these necklaces actually work to ease the discomfort of teething, and whatever other problems parents tend to associate with the long period of time during which infants and young children develop their teeth. Assuming these necklaces work as recounted in the glowing testimonials on countless websites and parent blogs, how do they produce their dramatic results?

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals

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Measles gets a helping hand

In a recent post I shared a bit of my personal, near-death experience with measles during the US epidemic of 1989-1991. As I describe in that post, I contracted a very serious measles infection at the end of medical school, and was highly infectious when I interviewed for a residency position at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Like others my age who received an ineffective, killed measles vaccine between 1963 and 1967, I had not been adequately protected. The MMR vaccine was not yet available, and no boosters were recommended at the time. Unfortunately, though my measles titers (a test of immunity to measles) were checked when I entered medical school, the school’s student health department failed to notice or respond to the results – I was not immune and did not receive a booster dose at that time, as I should have. That mistake was huge, and could have cost me my life. It also caused me to potentially sicken many vulnerable children during my tour of the hospital, as well as others I may have inadvertently exposed during the window of communicability as I walked the streets of Seattle. The Department of Health had to be called to trace all of my steps and attempt to track down and protect any potential contacts.

Posted in: Epidemiology, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Osteopathy in the NICU: False Claims and False Dichotomies

I would like to preface this post by stating that I have worked with many DOs (Doctors of Osteopathy), and I have helped train many pediatric residents with DO degrees. I have found no difference in the overall quality of the training these students have received, and some of the very best clinicians I have ever worked with have been DOs. I would never prejudice my assessment or opinion of a physician based on whether they have an MD or a DO after their name.

Now, on to the discussion at hand.

I recently stumbled upon an article entitled, “Effect of osteopathic manipulative treatment on length of stay in a population of preterm infants: a randomized controlled trial”. There is nothing particularly exciting or interesting about this study, as there have been many published on the use of osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT) in children. There aren’t that many RCTs, however, and this particular one, although published in the open-access BioMed Central Pediatrics (impact factor 1.98), was chosen to be included in AAP Grand Rounds. AAP Grand Rounds is a publication put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to help pediatricians “Stay current and save time with monthly critical, evidence-based summaries of clinical content from nearly 100 journals.” Because the AAP found this important enough for mention in this widely read publication, with a distribution of 19,000 (source: AAP, 2014), I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at it. I am also interested in the very odd existence of the two, distinct paths to becoming a physician in this country, osteopathic and traditional medical school training. The distinction between the two is rarely discussed, even within the halls of academia or in our health care centers. That’s not to say that the topic isn’t discussed at all (in fact it was highlighted very recently right here on SBM), it has just remained a somewhat politically incorrect subject, sliding mostly under the radar. Having worked with and trained pediatricians with osteopathic degrees, I can tell you that discussions about this are considered taboo. This is primarily because osteopathic physicians have become mainstreamed over time (see below), and discussing the validity of the existence of their “specialness” is an awkward proposition. After taking a look at the paper in question, I’ll address this issue some more as I think it deserves additional attention.

Effect of osteopathic manipulative treatment on length of stay in a population of preterm infants: a randomized controlled trial.

This was a single-blinded RCT conducted at Santo Spirito Hospital in Pescara, Italy to explore whether OMT could shorten the length of stay among premature infants in their neonatal ICU (NICU). Secondary outcomes studied were the differences in daily weight gain and total cost of the NICU stay.

I’ll discuss the methods in a moment, but first let’s review the results.

Posted in: Clinical Trials

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You can’t beat the common cold, and that’s a fact

>> Disclaimer: nothing in this post is meant to be taken as medical advice. Always consult your own provider.

For those of us dedicated to supporting science-based medicine and fighting the ever-widening reach of sCAM, pseudoscience, and health fraud, finding a new woo-filled claim or a dangerous, evidence-lacking trend to write about is relatively easy. Many of us may not realize, however, that some of the most commonly used and recommended treatments, one of which at least is probably sitting in your medicine cabinet as you read this, is equally devoid of evidence to support its use.

Every drug store has row upon row of medicines designed to treat or prevent an acute upper respiratory tract infection, otherwise known as the common cold. Despite this, very few are able to live up to their promise. In most cases, particularly where children are concerned, the side effects of these medicines can be worse than the symptoms they are intended to treat. Because I am a pediatrician, and because the evidence for cough and cold medicines (I will refer to them here as CCMs) for children is particularly absent and because adverse events due to CCMs are most frequently seen in children, I will focus mainly on this population. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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