Archive for Medical Academia

“Integrative oncology”: The Trojan horse that is quackademic medicine infiltrates ASCO


You might have noticed that I didn’t produce a post last week, something that’s unusual for me, given how prolific I have been in the blogosphere. One reason was personal. The other reason was that last weekend I was attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago. I also must confess that, while I was there, I caused a bit of a stir on the meeting hashtag (#ASCO14) in the name of science-based medicine (SBM) on Twitter under my handle @gorskon. (What? You aren’t following me on Twitter? Get thee hence to my Twitter feed and add me. I’ll wait. Did you do it yet? Good. Now we can move on.) Of course, I know what you’re thinking: Cuddly, lovable me? Causing trouble? Making sure that I’ll almost certainly never be invited to be an official social media doc or to participate in panels on social media at ASCO, despite my extensive experience blogging, using Twitter, and just in general being a pain in the rear online to those who promote quackery and quackademic medicine? Perish the thought!

Of course, it was for just that reason that I was making a bit of a stir on Twitter. ASCO is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) and most organized oncology meetings out there, and there were several people considered “social media rock stars” in the world of oncology such as Mike Thompson, Deanna Attai, Matthew Katz, and Robert Miller live Tweeting the meeting, along with those viewed, correctly or incorrectly, as lesser lights, such as myself. In any case, on Sunday I noticed that a lot of people, including the official ASCO Twitter feed @ASCO, were Tweeting and re-Tweeting a link to this official story from ASCO, “Integrative Oncology Can Add Benefit to Traditional Cancer Treatments.” It was a description of a session that had been held on Saturday morning, Integrative Oncology: The Evidence Base, which, unfortunately, I had missed due to circumstances entirely beyond my control. Fortunately, however, ASCO is benevolent (not to mention that it also justifies the high cost of meeting registration) by providing immediate access to recordings of every major session, not to mention the slide sets used. If I couldn’t be there in person, at least I could cruise on over to the ASCO website and use my access to the 2014 virtual meeting to see what sort of quackademic medicine was being featured at ASCO. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Medical Academia, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy, Bayes, the NIH, and Human Studies Ethics

An experiment is ethical or not at its inception; it does not become ethical post hoc—ends do not justify means.
~ Henry K. Beecher


A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Josephine Briggs, the Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), posted a short essay on the NCCAM Research Blog touting the results of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) (italics added):

The authors found that those receiving the active treatment clearly fared better than those receiving placebo. The accompanying editorial in the AHJ reminds readers about the value of equipoise and the need to “test our beliefs against evidence.”

Most physicians did not expect benefit from chelation treatment for cardiovascular disease. I readily admit, initially, I also did not expect we would find evidence that these treatments reduce heart attack, strokes, or death. So, the evidence of benefit coming from analyses of the TACT trial has been a surprise to many of us. The subgroup analyses are suggesting sizable benefit for diabetic patients—and also, importantly, no benefit for the non-diabetic patient. Clearly subgroup analyses, even if prespecified, do not give us the final answer. But it is also clear that more research is needed to test these important findings.

And TACT findings are indeed a reminder of the importance of retaining equipoise [sic], seeking further research aimed at replicating the findings, and neither accepting nor rejecting findings based on personal biases. The scientific process is designed to weed out our preconceived notions and replace them with evidence.

Dr. Briggs concluded:

So, TACT is a reminder—an open mind is at the center of the scientific method.

Dr. Briggs’s title was “Bayes’ Rule and Being Ready To Change Our Minds”, a reference to a recent editorial that had accompanied one of the TACT papers. That editorial, by Dr. Sanjay Kaul, a physician and statistician from UCLA, begins with this quotation:

Preconceived notions are the locks on the door to wisdom.
~ Merry Browne

Here is the relevant passage from Dr. Kaul’s editorial (italics added):

Sixth, it has been argued that the trial was unethical because there was no compelling clinical or preclinical evidence that chelation therapy has significant efficacy against atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, and given that chelation therapy can cause harm, the risk was not minimal. A Bayesian analysis would not look kindly on the results because of the low prior probability of treatment effect (the so-called implausibility argument).6 This is an uncharitable (and unwarranted) interpretation of the data because previous systematic reviews concluded, “insufficient evidence to decide on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of chelation therapy in improving clinical outcomes among people with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” It is axiomatic that absence of evidence of efficacy is not the same as evidence of the absence of efficacy.

From a Bayesian perspective, the strength of evidence is often summarized using a Bayes factor, which is a measure of how well 2 competing hypotheses (the null and the alternate) predict the data. The Bayes factor and the corresponding strength of evidence for the primary end point result in TACT overall, and diabetic cohorts are shown in Table 1. The p-value of 0.035 for TACT overall cohort translates into a Bayes factor of 0.108, which means the evidence supports the null hypothesis ≈1/9th as strongly as it does the alternative. This reduces the null probability from 50% pretrial (justified by suspension of one’s belief in treatment effect) to 10% post-trial. Although this does not represent strong evidence against the null, it does reduce the level of skepticism surrounding chelation therapy. In the diabetic cohort, the nominal p-value of 0.0002 translates into a Bayes factor of 0.002 (1/500), which reduces the extremely skeptical prior null probability of 95% to 4% post- trial, indicating very strong evidence against the null.

In concluding, Dr. Kaul states:

Finally, TACT highlights the double standard when it comes to accepting inconvenient results not aligned with our preconceived notions on so-called dubious quack cures such as chelation…

Closed minds?

Dr. Kaul’s reference “6” above is to a lengthy article that we published in 2008 titled “Why the NIH Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy Should Be Abandoned”. So, it seems, both Drs. Briggs and Kaul were chastising us for our biased, preconceived beliefs about so-called dubious quack cures. Our minds were, apparently, not open. Let’s examine this contention. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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What’s in a name?: NCCAM tries to polish a turd


What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on its tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig.

You can paint a turd red, but it’s still a turd.

There’s a colloquial phrase commonly used to describe an effort to sell or promote something that is so inherently awful or at least so flawed as to be unsalvageable without either a radical rethinking or such a major overhaul that it would be impractical or impossible to do: Polishing a turd. In this, advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) have been very successful. Mark Crislip, in his usual inimitable fashion, just reminded us why CAM is a turd that needs polishing. Unfortunately, on Friday, I learned that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine unveiled a proposal to help it be more efficient in polishing the turd that is CAM through the clever use of language, and it wants your feedback. There were lots of other things that happened over the last few days that tempted me to write about them that will likely have to appear over at my not-so-secret other blog, but this one caught my attention and held it, given that it goes to the very heart of the deceptive use of language that is at the heart of giving CAM the appearance of legitimacy. In this specific case, NCCAM wants a new name. Dr. Briggs wants to rename NCCAM the National Center for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health (NCRCI). (I have no idea why the abbreviation of the proposed new center name isn’t NCRCIH.) Here’s Dr. Briggs explaining the rationale for the proposal and urging feedback by June 6 at I urge you to watch the whole video, or at least read the transcript:

Thus does Dr. Briggs propose polishing the turd that is NCCAM.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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Traditional Chinese herbalism at the Cleveland Clinic? What happened to science-based medicine?

I don’t recall if I’ve ever mentioned my connection with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation (CCF). I probably have, but just don’t remember it. Long-time readers might recall that I did my general surgery training at Case Western Reserve University at University Hospitals of Cleveland. Indeed, I did my PhD there as well in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Up the road less than a mile from UH is the Cleveland Clinic. As it turns out, during my stint in Physiology and Biophysics at CWRU, I happened to do a research rotation in a lab at the CCF, which lasted a few months. OK, so it’s not much of a connection. It was over 20 years ago and only lasted a few months, but it’s something that gives me an obvious and blatant hook to start out this post, particularly given the number of cardiac patients I delivered to the CCF back in the early 1990s when I moonlighted as a flight physician for Metro LifeFlight.

Obvious and clunky introduction aside (hey, they can’t all be brilliant; so I’ll settle for nauseatingly self-deprecating), several of my readers have been sending me a link to a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal the other day: A Top Hospital Opens Up to Chinese Herbs as Medicines: Evidence is lacking that herbs are effective. I also noticed that our fearless leader Steve Novella blogged about it and was tempted to let it pass, given that I had seemingly lost my window, but then I realized that there’s always something I can add to a post, even after the topic’s been blogged by Steve Novella. Whether that something is of value or not, I leave to the reader. So here we go. Besides, if this article truly indicates a new trend in academic medical centers, it’s—if you’ll excuse the term—quantum leap in the infiltration of quackademic medicine into formerly reputable medical centers. It’s a depressing thing, and it needs to be publicized.

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Medical Academia

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Point-of-Care Ultrasound: The Best Thing Since Stethoscopes?

A bit of good news for a change: a “Perspective” article in the New England Journal of Medicine describes how point-of-care ultrasound devices are being integrated into medical education. The wonders of modern medical technology are akin to science fiction. We don’t yet have a tricorder like “Bones” McCoy uses on Star Trek, but we are heading in that direction, and the new handheld ultrasound devices are a promising development.

The stethoscope has become iconic, a symbol of medical expertise draped proudly around the neck by doctors and other medical personnel. Before it was invented, doctors could only try to listen to a patient’s heart by direct application of ear to chest. In 1816, Laennec interposed a tube of rolled paper between ear and chest, and the stethoscope was born. It quickly became an essential tool, allowing us to hear the distinctive murmurs produced by different heart valve abnormalities, to take blood pressures, to detect the wheezing of asthma or the collapse of a lung , to hear the bruits caused by atherosclerotic narrowing of blood vessels, to detect intestinal obstructions by listening for borborygmi (I love that onomatopoeic word!).

The stethoscope allows us to hear sounds produced by the body, but sound also allows us to see inside the body. Diagnostic ultrasound has a multitude of uses. With prenatal sonograms, we can determine the sex of a fetus, watch it suck its thumb, and even take its picture for the family album. With echocardiography we can evaluate heart valves, see fluid accumulation in the pericardium, observe the thickness and motion of the heart wall, and even quantify the efficiency of the pumping process. Ultrasound lets us see clots in blood vessels and stones in the gallbladder, evaluate abdominal organs, detect cysts, screen for carotid artery narrowing and abdominal aortic aneurysms, and guide needles into the body for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Medical Academia, Medical devices

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A tale of quackademic medicine at the University of Arizona Cancer Center

Quackademic medicine.

I love that term, because it succinctly describes the infiltration of pseudoscientific medicine into medical academia. As I’ve said many times, I wish I had been the one to coin the phrase, but I wasn’t. To the best of my ability to determine, I first picked it up from Dr. R. W. Donnell back in 2008 and haven’t been able to find an earlier use of the term. As much as I try to give credit where credit is due, I have, however, appropriated the term “quackademic medicine” (not to mention its variants, like “quackademia”), used it, and tried my best to popularize it among supporters of science-based medicine. Indeed, one of my earliest posts on this blog was about how quackery has infiltrated the hallowed halls of medical academia, complete with links to medical schools that have “integrative medicine” programs and even medical schools that promoted the purely magic-based medical modalities known as reiki and homeopathy. It’s been a recurrent topic on this blog ever since, leading to a number posts on the unethical clinical trials of treatments with zero or minimal pre-trial plausibility, the degradation of the scientific basis of medicine, and the acceptance of magical thinking as a means of treating patients in all too many medical centers.

One strong candidate for quackademic ground zero, if there can be such a thing for the phenomenon like quackademic medicine, which is creeping up like so much kudzu in the cracks of the edifice of science-based medicine (SBM), is the University of Arizona. U. of A. is, of course, the home of one of the originators of the concept of quackademic medicine and one of its most famous and tireless promoters, Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil, as you might recall, has even been the driving force for creating a highly dubious “board certification” in integrative medicine. Sadly, apparently this new board certification has been so popular among physicians wanting to “integrate” a little quackery into their practices, that its first examination has been delayed from May to November 2014, so that the American Board of Physician Specialties can figure out how to accommodate the unexpectedly large number of applicants.

So what happens when a patient arrives at U. of A. for treatment? I found out last week when I received an e-mail, which led to a fairly long e-mail exchange, with a man whose son was diagnosed with leukemia and is being treated at the University of Arizona Cancer Center (UACC). Although this man gave me permission to use his name, I am going to decline to do so because there is a child involved, although anyone involved in his case at U. of A. will likely quickly be able to identify who the man is. It turns out that he is a professor at U. of A. in a humanities department (which is why I’ll refer to him henceforth as the Professor), and, even though he is not a scientist, he clearly knows how to think (which would not be surprising if you knew what department he was in). In his e-mail, he told me how appalled he was at the sorts of treatments being offered to his son:

Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia, Religion

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An update on the case of Sarah Hershberger: Parental rights trump the right of a child with cancer to live

Five weeks ago, when last I touched on the case of Sarah Hershberger, the now 11-year-old Amish girl from Medina County, Ohio near Akron with lymphoblastic lymphoma whose parents had taken her off of chemotherapy after only two rounds, reports had been coming out of the cancer quackery underground that Sarah’s parents, Andy and Anna Hershberger, had fled to avoid a court order that appointed a medical guardian for her to make sure that she received appropriate science-based therapy. At the time I was unable to confirm these stories in the mainstream press. However, over the last month there have been significant developments in this case and even over the last week; so I thought that now would be a good time to update SBM readers on developments in the case.

The Thanksgiving confirmation

One thing that I didn’t mention a month ago is that David Michael and others have been actively raising money to support the Hershbergers’ legal battles. Then, over the long Thanksgiving Day weekend news reports began to trickle out confirming what the “alternative” health sites had been reporting, namely that the Hershbergers had fled. These reports started with story from a local Medina newspaper, then spread to a northeast Ohio television stations, and then to national news sources (like Good Morning America and CNN) and international news outlets. The Medina Gazette first reported:

Posted in: Cancer, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Integrative Medicine’s Collateral Damage

Integrative medicine combines the practice of medicine with alternative medicine. Proponents tend to take a paragraph or two to say this, but that is what remains when boiled down to its essence. By putting this more concise definition together with Tim Minchin’s often-quoted observation about alternative medicine, you get: integrative medicine is the practice of medicine combined with medicine that either has not been proved to work or proved not to work. If it is proved to work, it is medicine.

I couldn’t find an official start date for integrative medicine, but it seems to have been around for about 15-20 years. (Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, an early adapter, opened in 1997.) Yet despite some lofty pronouncements about transforming patient care, there is still no good evidence that integrative medicine improves patient outcomes. It seems unlikely that such evidence is forthcoming. It is illogical to assume that adding therapies that do not work, or are proven not to work, would benefit a patient except by inducing the ethically problematic placebo response.

Whatever its goals initially, integrative medicine now appears to serve two purposes. First, it attracts funding from wealthy patrons (Samueli, Bravewell) and the government (the military, NCCAM). Second, it is a marketing device used by hospitals, academic medical centers and individual practitioners. As an added bonus, alternative medicine is usually fee-for-service because very little of it is covered by insurance. And whatever its charms as a money-making device, given the lack of proven health benefit it is fair to ask: is integrative medicine worth it? To answer that question, let us look at what might be called the supply side of integrative medicine practitioners’ delivery of alternative medicine. Here we run into some unpleasant facts proponents seem unwilling to acknowledge: integrative medicine’s collateral damage. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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The future of “integrative medicine” is too close for comfort

I was the other day. I’ve been on vacation this week (staycation, actually, as I stayed at home and didn’t go on any trips); so you would think it would take a lot to depress me. Unfortunately, today is the last day of that vacation; so the thought of diving back into the fray trying to fund my lab. It didn’t help that I read Scott Gavura’s Thursday post how another once-proud academic medical center, the University of Toronto, is letting the Trojan horse that is “integrative medicine” into the halls of its medical school and school of pharmacy. As I frequently say, much to the annoyance of advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine,” what “integrative medicine” does is to “integrate” quackery with real medicine, which neither validates the quackery nor improves the real medicine. Or, as my good bud and fellow SBM blogger Mark Crislip so aptly put it:

If you integrate fantasy with reality, you do not instantiate reality. If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.

Yes, I’ve been trying to come up with a quote that captures the essence of “integrative medicine” better than Mark’s quote. I’ve yet to succeed; so I steal his quote whenever I need to. It’s sort of the same way that I didn’t actually coin the term “quackademic medicine” to describe the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine. (Dr. R. W. Donnell did, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain.) However, I believe I’ve done more than anyone else to use and promote the term, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog. As I like to say say, mediocre bloggers borrow. Great bloggers steal.

Be that as it may, Scott’s post reminded me that I hadn’t looked much at quackademic medicine, at least not at the status of its infiltration into medical academia, in a while. Then I saw a review article entitled The Future of Integrative Medicine in The American Journal of Medicine by Victor S. Sierpina, MD, ABFM, ABIHM and James E. Dalen, MD, MPH. (Note that ABIHM stands for the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and ABFM stands for the American Board of Family Medicine.). The article itself has no place in any self-respecting peer-reviewed medical journal, but there it is, much the same way that quackademic woo has been intermittently infiltrating the New England Journal of Medicine. The article itself is one massive apologia for integrative medicine. In fact, it’s useful to look at because it follows a script that virtually all such articles follow, with only relatively minor variations.


Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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The Trojan Horse called Integrative Medicine arrives at another medical school

Trojan Rabbit

Medicine is a collaborative practice. Hospitals are the best example, where dozens of different health professionals work cooperatively, sharing responsibilities for patient care. Teamwork is essential, and that’s why health professionals obtain a large part of their education on the job, in teaching (academic) hospitals. The only way that all of these different professions are able to work together effectively is that their foundations are based on an important, yet simple, principle. All of us have education and training grounded in basic scientific principles of medicine. Biochemistry, pharmacology, physiology – we all work from within the same framework. As a pharmacist, my role might include working with physicians and nurses to manage and monitor medication use. A team approach is only possible when you’re working from the same playbook, and with the same aim. And in medicine, that playbook is science.

That’s why “integrative” medicine frightens me so much. Integrative medicine is a tactic embedding complementary and alternative medical practices into conventional medical care. Imagine “integrating” a practitioner into the health system that doesn’t accept germ theory. Or basic disease definitions. Or the effectiveness of vaccines. Or even basic biochemistry – perhaps they believe in treatments that restore the body’s “vital force” or manipulate some sort of “energy fields”. Instead of relying on objective signs and symptoms, they base treatments on pre-scientific beliefs, long discarded from medicine. There may be entirely different treatment goals, which are potentially antagonistic to the scientific standard. Imagine a hospital or academic setting where this occurs, and the potential impact on the quality of care that is delivered. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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