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Less benefit, more risk. Our assumptions about health treatments are probably wrong.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

I’m a health professional, but sometimes a patient as well. And like most patients, I generally don’t want health decisions being made without my input. Yes, I want the best medical information, and the advice of medical professionals, but ultimately I want to make my own decisions about my care. That’s the norm in health care today, but relatively new in the history of medicine.

Medical paternalism, where patient preferences are secondary (or even ignored), is disappearing. Even informed consent, where patients are given information on risks and benefits, doesn’t adequately describe the drive towards a two-way exchange, with an empowered, engaged patient. Today the goal is shared decision making, which describes a mutual decision that is informed by a health professional’s medical knowledge and advice, but also incorporates a patient’s own preferences and wishes. Truly shared decision-making includes an explicit consideration of a treatment’s expected benefits and potential harms, yet reflects patient values.

Screening is a textbook example of why shared decision-making should be our goal. Given the benefits of a disease screening program may be modest, and not without harms, understanding and incorporating individual preference is essential. Some may value the small but incremental benefits of screening, and choose to be screened despite the risks of false positives, investigations, and possible overtreatment. Given the exact same circumstances, another individual may opt to forgo screening, making a different, yet equally acceptable decision. While there are some health interventions for which the benefits are unequivocal, and others for which the harms are just as clear, most health treatments (and interventions like screening) have both benefits and potential harms that must be carefully assessed within the context of patient preferences. Research published earlier this year has identified a significant barrier to truly effective shared decision-making and risk assessment: Across a wide range of interventions, we routinely overestimate the benefits of health treatments, and underestimate their risks. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Supplements are the Wild West of health. One Attorney General is out to change that.

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Bold moves from the New York State attorney general’s (AG) office are shaking up the supplement industry. In February, the AG accused four retailers (GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens) of selling supplements that failed to contain their labelled ingredients. Using a testing method called “DNA barcoding“, the AG’s office concluded that few of the products it tested actually contained the labelled ingredient, and some contained undisclosed ingredients. It demanded that they stop the sale of those products. All four retailers complied.

When the recall occurred, I noted that the AG may not have had an airtight case: manufacturers and other critics challenged the AG’s methodology, claiming that DNA barcoding was unvalidated, inappropriate, and insufficient. They also stated that the DNA may not survive processing, so the absence of DNA didn’t imply a lack of the original product. Some claimed that the “contaminants” that AG found could have been acceptable fillers. The Attorney General refused to release further information about the testing methods it used, raising further questions about its validity. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Should the FDA crack down on homeopathic “remedies”?

In the category of potentially dangerous complementary or alternative medicine, I can think of few products worse than ones claimed to relieve asthma, yet don’t actually contain any medicine. Yet these products exist and are widely sold. Just over a year ago I described what might be the most irresponsible homeopathic treatment ever: A homeopathic asthma spray. If there was ever a complementary or alternative product that could cause serious harm, this is it:

oral-asthma-spray

Photo Credit Ryan Meylon

 

Among the different treatments and remedies that are considered “alternative” medicine, homeopathy is the most implausible of all. Homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system, where the “remedies” lack any actual medicine. Based on the idea that “like cures like” (which is sympathetic magic, not science), proponents of homeopathy believe that any substance can be an effective remedy if it’s diluted enough: cancer, boar testicles, crude oil, oxygen, and skim milk are all homeopathic “remedies”. (I think Berlin Wall may be my favorite, though vacuum cleaner dust is a runner-up). The dilution in the case of homeopathy is so significant that there’s mathematically no possibility of even a trace of the original ingredient in the typical remedy – they are chemically indistinguishable from a placebo. To homeopaths, this is a good thing, as dilution is claimed to make the medicine-free “remedy” more potent, not less. As would be expected with inert products, rigorous clinical trials confirm what basic science (and math) predicts: homeopathy’s effects are placebo effects. Recently Steven Novella blogged about the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) comprehensive report on homeopathy which concluded the following: (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Evaluating milk and its substitutes

"Milk"

“Milk” at my local grocery store

I knew milk alternatives were becoming mainstream when a new bakery/café appeared in my neighborhood. I ordered a latte and learned that they didn’t use milk. At all. Not only were the baked goods vegan, organic, “natural” and some were gluten-free, they were completely dairy-free for their coffee beverages. While everything looked and smelled great, I was shocked that they had no milk on the premises. The milk alternative made with soy didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t taste like milk. I left with my coffee, wondering how long the place would survive. I was wrong. It’s been a few years and the shop is still here, suggesting there’s a sizable appetite (at least in my laid-back, coffee-shop-saturated neighborhood) for milk-free, wheat-free vegan food and drinks. I shouldn’t be surprised. The number of people on restricted diets seems to be growing, and so have the food choices to meet their dietary demands. There have always been people that avoided milk, but the reason was traditionally lactose intolerance or dairy allergies. Now more are simply choosing to avoid it. I’m often asked about the merits of milk and the multiple milk alternatives, as the assessments of dairy seems to take one of two positions: Either milk is the dietary equivalent of unicorn tears, a nearly perfect food, or it is poison that’s almost certainly killing us. What’s clear is that we have more choice than ever for milk-like beverages. My local grocery is pictured above, where cow’s milk is just one small section. Who knew you could milk cashews? (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Pseudoscience North: What’s happening to the University of Toronto?

Trojan Rabbit

 

Today’s post is a reluctant challenge. I’m nominating my own alma mater, the University of Toronto, as the new pseudoscience leader among large universities – not just in Canada, but all of North America. If you can identify a large university promoting or embracing more scientifically questionable activities, I’ll happily buy you a coffee. Yes, it’s personal to me, as I have two degrees from U of T. But I’m more concerned about the precedent. If Canada’s largest university is making decisions that appear to lack a careful consideration of the scientific evidence, then what does that suggest about the scientific standards for universities in Canada? (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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Searching for the supplement in your supplement

Should you trust what on the label?

Is what’s on the label really in the capsule?

Most of us are fortunate to live in countries where we don’t have to worry about counterfeit drugs. We can be confident that the prescription we receive, or the drugs we purchase from the pharmacy, are of high quality and contain exactly what’s on the label. But in these same countries, there’s another group of products where the risks of counterfeits are very real – it’s among the dietary supplements that are often found on the same shelves. Dietary supplements are not regulated in the same way as drug products. The American supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar free-for-all with little meaningful safety or quality regulation. Supplement quality and safety issues are in the media regularly as a result. The most recent example comes from the New York State attorney general’s office. It has accused four large retailers of selling supplements that failed to contain labelled ingredients. Testing the products with a technology called “DNA barcoding”, the AG’s office concluded that most of the products contained little to none of the labelled ingredient. And they also found ingredients that were not disclosed on the label. The AG’s office has demanded these products be removed from store shelves, and the stores stand accused of fraud. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Selling complementary and alternative medicine: An business ethics perspective

I joined Professor Chris MacDonald at Ryerson University earlier this week to participate in Ryerson’s business ethics speaker series. The topic was CAM:

Is it ethical to market complementary and alternative medicines? Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are medical products and services outside the mainstream of medical practice. But they are not just medicines (or supposed medicines) offered and provided for the prevention and treatment of illness. They are also products and services – things offered for sale in the marketplace. Most discussion of the ethics of CAM has focused on bioethical issues – issues having to do with therapeutic value, and the relationship between patients and those purveyors of CAM. This presentation — by a philosopher and a pharmacist — aims instead to consider CAM from the perspective of commercial ethics. That is, we consider the ethics not of prescribing or administering CAM (activities most closely associated with health professionals) but the ethics of selling CAM.

If it’s not embedded above, you can watch the whole presentation on CAM and business ethics with this link.

It was great to see so many public members attend and participate. There was an extended Q&A afterwards, with some very thoughtful audience questions. Outside of blogs like this, and those of CAM critics like Edzard Ernst, the practical ethics of CAM provision are rarely discussed.  Watch for more on this topic in the future.

 

Posted in: Announcements, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Lies, fraud, conflicts of interest, and bogus science: The real Dr. Oz effect

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I thought I’d written my final post on the Dr. Oz-fueled green coffee bean extract (GCBE) diet supplement fad. But now there’s another appalling chapter, one that documents just how much contempt The Dr. Oz Show seems to show for its audience, and how little Dr. Oz seems to care about providing advice based on good science. This week it was revealed that the “naturopath” that Dr. Oz originally featured in his GCBE segment, Lindsey Duncan, didn’t disclose a direct conflict of interest when he spoke. After inaccurately describing the supplement’s effectiveness, he directed consumers, using keywords, to web sites that he owned or operated. The infamous “Dr. Oz Effect” worked, with Duncan selling $50 million in GCBE supplements in the following months and years. This week it was announced that Duncan and his companies have been fined $9 million by the Federal Trade Commission. The documentation released by the FTC [PDF] gives remarkable insight into how a scam to make millions was launched, and how the Dr. Oz Show is a platform for the routine promotion of dubious “experts” and worthless supplements. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy

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Upcoming Toronto talk: Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Business Ethics Perspective

TRSM logo

I’ll be joining Professor Chris MacDonald on January 28 for a discussion about the ethics of selling complementary and alternative medicine:

Is it ethical to market complementary and alternative medicines? Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are medical products and services outside the mainstream of medical practice. But they are not just medicines (or supposed medicines) offered and provided for the prevention and treatment of illness. They are also products and services – things offered for sale in the marketplace. Most discussion of the ethics of CAM has focused on bioethical issues – issues having to do with therapeutic value, and the relationship between patients and those purveyors of CAM. This presentation — by a philosopher and a pharmacist — aims instead to consider CAM from the perspective of commercial ethics. That is, we consider the ethics not of prescribing or administering CAM (activities most closely associated with health professionals) but the ethics of selling CAM.

Admission is free. Space is limited. Register here.

WHAT: Complementary & Alternative Medicine: A Business Ethics Perspective

DATE: January 28, 2015

TIME: 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

WHERE: Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, 55 Dundas Street West, Toronto.

 

UPDATE (January 29, 2015): The talk in its entirety is now online.

 

Posted in: Announcements

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Are skin-lightening glutathione injections safe and effective?

A Toronto naturopath’s advertisements were recently criticized on social media for insensitivity and racism:

Glutathione Advertisement TTC Jean-Jacqques Dugoua

Picture used with permission of @emilyknits

Naturopath Jean-Jacqques Dugoua sells glutathione injections, claiming it will give “brighter, lighter and glowing skin”. His URL, lightnaturalskin.com seems to imply that lighter skin is more natural, and he claims the following:

After over 3 years of treating patients for skin concerns, Dr. JJ has developed the Skin Brightening IV, which includes glutathione, vitamin C and other vitamins/minerals. Not only is this treatment effective for most people, it is also safe. The Skin Brightening IV glutathione is a good alternative to skin bleaching creams, which can damage, scar, inflame, discolour or irritate the skin, or microderm abrasion, which is painful and may also irritate the skin and sometimes worsen hyper-pigmentation.

This safe and natural treatment involves principally the use of intravenous (IV) vitamins (excluding vitamin A), minerals and amino acids, including glutathione. All ingredients are regulated by Health Canada and obtained from pharmacies or pharmaceutical companies in Canada or the United States. The treatment is performed in compliance with licensure in Ontario.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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