Having spent many evenings and weekends working in a retail pharmacy with a thriving vitamin and supplement aisle, I’m no longer surprised at the purchasing habits of consumers. The setting gave me not only the opportunity to learn about the latest supplement fads, but also to speak with consumers that place great faith in these products. A recent paper suggests 25% of CAM users account for 75% of all expenditures on CAM. And that’s consistent with what I saw in the pharmacy. Some consumers spend hundreds per month on supplements, so the belief that these products are beneficial must be very strong. So I like to ask about reasons for use. Many attribute their current health status to supplements, and usually tell me that their supplements are for preventing disease, optimizing health, or “boosting” the immune system. And while I’m encouraged to see these consumers take an active interest in maximizing their own health, I’m often puzzled by the decision-making that’s occurring. In some cases, beliefs about health, medicine, or the effectiveness of their supplements are misguided, or flat-out wrong. They’re getting expensive urine and positive feelings, but there’s little evidence to suggest the supplementing is having any objective benefits. More surprisingly, some consumers take products for which there is no medical indication at all – it’s intended as “primary prevention” of a medical condition they believe they can avoid through supplement use. Afraid of macular degeneration? Take lutein. Or worried about Alzheimer’s? Grab some ginkgo biloba. No matter your anxiety, there’s a supplement marketed for your. One supplement with enduring popularity is magnesium. It cures cancer. And depression. Throw away your inhalers, because it cures asthma too. Read enough online, and you’ll conclude that magnesium is quite possibly the prevention and the cure to all disease. (more…)
One of the points I’ve tried to emphasize through my contributions to Science-Based Medicine is that every treatment decision requires an evaluation of risks and benefits. No treatment is without some sort of risk. And a decision to decline treatment has its own risks. One of the challenges that I confront regularly as a pharmacist is helping patients understand a medication’s expected long-term benefits against the risks and side effects of treatment. This dialogue is most challenging with symptomless conditions like high blood pressure, where patients face the prospect of immediate side effects against the potential for long-term benefit. One’s willingness to accept side effects is influenced, in part, by and understanding of, and belief in, the overall goals of therapy. Side effects from blood-pressure medications can be unpleasant. But weighed against the reduced risk of catastrophic events like strokes, drug therapy may be more acceptable. Willingness to accept these tradeoffs varies dramatically by disease, and are strongly influenced by patient-specific factors. In general, the more serious the illness, the greater the willingness to accept the risks of treatment.
As I’ve described before, consumers may have completely different risk perspectives when it comes to drug therapies and (so-called) complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). For some, there is a clear delineation between the two: drugs are artificial, harsh, and dangerous. Supplements, herbs and anything deemed “alternative”, however, are natural, safe, and effective. When we talk about drugs, we use scientific terms – discussing the probability of effectiveness or harm, and describing both. With CAM, no tentativeness or balance may be used. Specific treatment claims may not be backed up by any supporting evidence at all. On several occasions patients with serious medical conditions have told me that they are refusing all drug treatments, describing them as ineffective or too toxic. Many are attracted to the the simple promises of CAM, instead. Now I’m not arguing that drug treatment is always necessary for ever illness. For some conditions where lifestyle changes can obviate the need for drug treatments, declining treatment this may be a reasonable approach – it’s a kick in the pants to improve one’s lifestyle. Saying “no” may also be reasonable where the benefits from treatment are expected to be modest, yet the adverse effects from treatments are substantial. These scenarios are not uncommon in the palliative care setting. But in some circumstances, there’s a clear medical requirement for drug treatment – yet treatment is declined. This approach is particularly frustrating in situations where patients face very serious illnesses that are potentially curable. This week is the World Cancer Congress in Montreal and on Monday there were calls for patients to beware of fake cancer cures, ranging from laetrile, to coffee enemas, to juicing, and mistletoe. What are the consequences of using alternative treatments, instead of science-based care, for cancer? There are several studies and a recent publication that can help answer that question. (more…)
A customer strolled up to the counter one night when I was working in a retail pharmacy:
“My doctor says I have prediabetes. I don’t want to take any drugs. Do you have something natural I can use to cut my blood sugar?”
I looked at him in the eye, and pointed at his sizeable midsection. “Sir, if you’re at risk for diabetes, and you don’t want to take medication, the single best thing you can do for yourself is lose some weight.”
He grinned and asked, “Great – what supplement can I take to help me?”
This type of discussion occurs all the time. A patient has been assessed by their physician, and informed that they have a medical problem of some sort. The patient, reluctant to accept the physician’s evaluation, heads to the pharmacy for a second opinion. In some cases, the patient may question the physician’s advice: “All my physician wants to do is prescribe drugs.” Yet there’s a disconnect when it comes to strategies for management. More often than not, non-drug approaches are rejected out-of-hand (probably because the sample I speak with have already made the decision to buy something). And in those that are leery of medical management, there’s often a willingness to consider anything that’s available without a prescription – particularly if it’s perceived as “natural.” Natural products are gentle, safe, and effective, while medicine is thought of as unnatural, harsh, and potentially dangerous. This is the naturalistic fallacy, nothing more. Purveyors of supplements leverage the naturalistic fallacy into the marketing strategy of choice for almost all supplements and “alternative” medicines. And it leads to bad health care decisions. (more…)
Do you have any skeptical blind spots? I’ve had a skeptical perspective for a long time (my teenage cynicism wasn’t just a phase) but the framework for my thinking has developed over years. Professionally, the blind spot that the pharmacy profession has towards supplements and alternatives to medicine was only clear after I spent some time working in a pharmacy with thriving homeopathy sales. In looking for some credible evidence to guide my recommendations, I discovered there was quite literally nothing to homeopathy. Once I discovered blogs like Respectful Insolence, the critical thinking process, and scientific skepticism, took off. (more…)
I contribute biweekly to Science-Based Medicine and could easily devote every post to writing about weight loss supplements, and never run out of topics. As soon as one quick fix falls out of favour, another inevitably replaces it. Some wax and wane in popularity. And pharmacies don’t help the situation. I cringe every time I walk down the aisle where weight loss products and kits are located. Detox? Hoodia? The “fat blaster”? Here are pharmacists, well educated and perfectly positioned to provide good advice to consumers, but standing behind a wall of boxes with ridiculous weight loss promises. Yet pharmacists tell me that these products are not only sought out by customers, but they actually sell well. It’s a lost opportunity to provide good advice, and consumers pay the price.
Perhaps because consumers associate these products with pharmacies, I get regular questions about weight loss programs. I end up developing some degree of familiarity with many of them, if only to be able to credibly redirect away from some of the more harmful plans and approaches. It’s that philosophy that I used recently when I was asked about how to best to manage a “plateau” on the HCG diet. I’d never dispensed human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) before, but knew of its use for the treatment of infertility, where it promotes egg release. But weight loss? I couldn’t think of a mechanism for how HCG could promote weight loss. So I did some digging, and found a long, rich vein of pseudoscience that dates back decades. (more…)
I can’t keep up with Dr. Oz. Just when I thought the latest weight loss miracle was raspberry ketone, along comes another weight loss panacea. This time, it’s green coffee beans.
Eveyone knows Dr. Oz, now. Formerly a guest on Oprah, he’s got his own show which he’s built into what’s probably the biggest platform for health pseudoscience and medical quackery on daytime television. In addition to promoting homeopathy, he’s hosted supplement marketer Joe Mercola several times to promote unproven supplements. He has been called out before for promoting ridiculous diet plans, and giving bad advice to diabetics. And don’t forget his failed attempt to actually demonstrate some science on his show, when he tested apple juice for arsenic which prompted a letter from the FDA about his methodology. His extensive track record of terrible health advice is your caution not to accept anything he suggests at face value. So when the sign in front of my local pharmacy started advertising “Green coffee beans – as seen on Dr. Oz”, I tracked down the clip in question. The last time I saw Dr. Oz in action when when he had SBM’s own Steven Novella as a guest, where there was actually a exchange (albeit brief) about the scientific evidence for alternative medicine. Replace Dr. Novella with a naturopath, and you get this: (more…)
As a group blog, Science-Based Medicine brings a variety of perspectives to issues of science in medicine. However we align around a few core principles which define what science-based medicine is, and how it should be practiced. One principle we emphasize is the importance of subjecting the evaluation of all health interventions and treatments to a single, science-based standard. One of the biggest successes of the alternative medicine industry, worldwide, has been the embedding of different regulatory standards for the evaluation and approval of so-called “non-drug” products such as supplements, herbal products, and non-scientific treatment systems like homeopathy or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The implications cannot be overstated: this different and lower standard is now so firmly entrenched in most health systems that few seem to question its rationale, or consider the consequences. As a practicing pharmacist I spent the first decade of my career working within this regulatory framework without ever stepping back to question why we regulate some products differently. I started reading, took the red pill, and here I am today. (more…)
Is the best medicine no medicine at all? Sometimes. My past posts have emphasized that the appropriateness of any drug depends on an evaluation of benefits and risks. There are no completely safe interventions, and no drug is free of any side effects. Our choice is ideally informed by high-quality data like randomized controlled trials, with lots of real-world experience so we understand a drug’s true toxicity. But when it comes down to a single patient, treatment decisions are personalized: we must consider individual patient characteristics to understand the expected benefits and potential harms. And in a world with perfect prescribing and drug use, harms wouldn’t be eliminated, but they would be minimized. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. There is ample evidence to show that the way in which prescription drugs are currently used causes avoidable harms to patients.
The art and science of medicine is a series of interventions to improve health. In making these treatment decisions, we strive to minimize iatrogenic harm — that is, harms caused by the intervention itself. High up on the list of of avoidable harms are adverse events related to drug treatments. Audits of adverse events are astonishing and shameful. Studies suggest 28% of events are avoidable in the community setting, and 42% are avoidable in long-term care settings. That’s a tremendous amount of possible harm resulting from treatments that were prescribed to help. And the group that is harmed the most? The elderly. (more…)
Is the health care spending tide turning? Unnecessary medical investigations and overtreatment seems to have entered the public consciousness to an extent I can’t recall in the past. More and more, the merits of medical investigations such as mammograms and just this week, PSA tests are being being widely questioned. It’s about time. Previous attempts to critically appraise overall benefits and consequences of of medical technologies seem to have died out amidst cries of “rationing!” But this time, the focus has changed – this isn’t strictly a cost issue, but a quality of care issue. It’s being championed by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIM) under the banner Choosing Wisely with the support of several medical organizations. The initiative is designed to promote a candid discussion between patient and physician: “Is this test or procedure necessary?”. Nine organizations are already participating, represent nearly 375,000 physicians. Each group developed its own list based on the following topic: Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question. Here are the lists published to date:
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- American College of Cardiology
- American College of Physicians
- American College of Radiology
- American Gastroenterological Association
- American Society of Clinical Oncology
- American Society of Nephrology
- American Society of Nuclear Cardiology
ABIM has partnered with Consumer Reports to prepare consumer-focused material as well, so patients can initiate these discussions with their physicians. How did this all come to be? A candid editorial from Howard Brody in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010:
In my view, organized medicine must reverse its current approach to the political negotiations over health care reform. I would propose that each specialty society commit itself immediately to appointing a blue-ribbon study panel to report, as soon as possible, that specialty’s “Top Five” list. The panels should include members with special expertise in clinical epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy, and evidence-based appraisal. The Top Five list would consist of five diagnostic tests or treatments that are very commonly ordered by members of that specialty, that are among the most expensive services provided, and that have been shown by the currently available evidence not to provide any meaningful benefit to at least some major categories of patients for whom they are commonly ordered. In short, the Top Five list would be a prescription for how, within that specialty, the most money could be saved most quickly without depriving any patient of meaningful medical benefit.
Health care professionals are, in general, self-regulating professions. That is, governments entrust them to set the standards for their profession and regulate members, in the public interest. Consequently, attempts by payors of services (i.e., government and insurers) to guide medical practice are usually met with substantial resistance. No-one wants insurers interfering in the patient-physician relationship. That’s why it’s exciting to see this initiative in place -it’s being driven by the medical profession itself.
As a pharmacist I’m also a member of a self-regulating profession, one in which the public places a considerable degree of trust in. In order to maintain the public’s confidence, it is essential that the pharmacy profession maintain the highest professional and ethical standards, and do its part to reduce unnecessary testing and investigations. With this in mind, I’ve taken up Brody’s challenge and developed my own list of Five things Pharmacists and Patients Should Question. While eliminating them may not provide the most savings to patients, they are pharmacy-based, widely offered, and offer little to no benefit to consumers. Here are my top five candidates: (more…)
Consider this scenario: You’re in good health and take no prescription drugs. You use the following remedies occasionally:
- Excedrin for the rare migraine
- Arnica 30CH for bumps and bruises
- Echinacea capsules, when you feel a cold coming on
Today you look in your cupboard, and notice all three products expired last year. Would you still consider taking any of them? Why or why not?
Your answer is probably influenced by a number of factors, including perceptions of risk and benefit. I’ve encountered patients who believe that drugs are less active as they near the expiration date, and others who see expiry dates solely as marketing ploy from Big Pharma. Few understand how they’re calculated.
Over the past few months I’ve written several posts on different aspects of drug development and testing, including drug interactions, fillers and excipients in drug products, the equivalence testing of generic drugs, and the management of drug allergies. I’ve done this for two reasons. The first is to develop a SBM-oriented resource for common questions and misconceptions about the mechanics of modern medicines. The second, less obvious reason for these posts has been to illustrate the serious credibility gaps with CAM therapies. Largely because of a lax regulatory framework, the CAM industry has ballooned into a multi-billion dollar market without answering basic questions that should be asked of any supplement or drug, “alternative” or otherwise. What’s not well known to consumers, but is glaringly obvious to SBM advocates, is that CAM largely ignores issues of pharmacology: understanding how a chemical substance, once consumed, behaves in the body. It’s critical to scientific medicine, but an unnecessary step for CAM, where there’s no need to determine if a product has a beneficial biological effect before selling it. Fundamental tests in medicine, like the identification and isolation of an active ingredient, or understanding dose-effect relationships, are simply ignored. As David Gorski and Mark Crislip have pointed out over the past week, we have a reality bias at SBM. And this bias is equally jarring when it comes to considering expiry dates for products: real drugs, and also CAM.