Archive for Medical Ethics

The rebranding of CAM as “harnessing the power of placebo”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past seven years or so that I’ve been blogging, first at my other “super secret” (or, more accurately, super “not-so-secret”) blogging location, and then the four years I’ve been blogging here at Science-Based Medicine (SBM), it’s that the vast majority of “alternative medicine,” “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and “integrative medicine” (IM) treatments (or whatever you want to call them) are nothing more than placebo medicine. True, there are exceptions, such as herbal treatments, mainly because they can contain chemicals in them that are active drugs, but any critical look at things like homeopathy (which is water), reiki (which is faith healing substituting Eastern mystical beliefs for Christianity), acupuncture (whose effects, when tested rigorously, are found to be nonspecific), or “energy healing” must conclude that any effects these modalities have are placebo effects or responses. Given writings on this topic by Steve Novella, Mark Crislip, Harriet Hall, Peter Lipson, myself, and others, this should be abundantly clear to readers of this blog, but, even so, it bears repeating. In fact, it probably can’t be repeated enough.

There was a time not so long ago when proponents of unscientific medicine tried very, very hard to argue that their nostrums have real effects on symptoms and disease above and beyond placebo effects. They would usually base such arguments on small, less rigorously designed clinical trials, mainly because, if there’s another thing I knew before from my medical education but that has been particularly reinforced in me since I started blogging, it’s that small clinical trials are very prone to false positives. Often they’d come up with some handwaving physiological or biological explanation, which, in the case of something like homeopathy, often violated the laws of chemistry and physics. Be that as it may, the larger and more rigorously designed the clinical trial, the less apparent effects become until, in the case of CAM therapies that do nothing (like homeopathy), they collapse into no effect detectable above that of placebo. Even so, there are often enough apparently “positive” clinical trials of water (homeopathy) that homeopaths can still cling to them as evidence that homeopathy works. Personally, I think that Kimball Atwood put it better when he cited a homeopath who said bluntly, “Either homeopathy works, or clinical trials don’t!” and concluded that, for highly implausible treatments like homeopathy, clinical trials as currently constituted under the paradigm of evidence-based, as opposed to science-based, medicine don’t work very well. Indeed, contrasting SBM with EBM has been a major theme of this blog over the last four years. In any case, for a long time, CAM enthusiasts argued that CAM really, really works, that it does better than placebo, just like real medicine.

Over the last few years, however, some CAM practitioners and quackademics have started to recognize that, no, when tested in rigorous clinical trials their nostrums really don’t have any detectable effects above and beyond that of placebo. A real scientist, when faced with such resoundingly negative results, would abandon such therapies as, by definition, a placebo therapy is a therapy that doesn’t do anything for the disease or condition being treated. CAM “scientists,” on the other hand, do not abandon therapies that have been demonstrated not to work. Instead, some of them have found a way to keep using such therapies. The way they justify that is to argue that placebo medicine is not just useful medicine but “powerful” medicine. Indeed, an article by Henry K. Beecher from 1955 referred to the “powerful placebo.” This construct allows them then to “rebrand” CAM unashamedly as “harnessing the power of placebo” as a way of defending its usefulness and relevance. In doing so, they like to ascribe magical powers to placebos, implying that placebos can do more than just decrease the perception of pain or other subjective symptoms but in fact can lead to objective improvements in a whole host of diseases and conditions. Some even go so far as to claim that there can be placebo effects without deception, citing a paper in which the investigators — you guessed it! — used deception to convince their patients that their placebos would relieve their symptoms. Increasingly, placebos are invoked as a means of “harnessing the power of the mind” over the body in order to relieve symptoms and cure disease in what at times seems like a magical mystery tour of the brain.

Part of what allows CAM practitioners to get away with this is that placebo effects are poorly understood even by most physicians and, not surprisingly, even more poorly understood by the public. Moreover, we all like to think that we have more control than we do over our bodies and, in particular, illnesses and symptoms, which is why the selling of placebo effects as a means of harnessing some innate hidden power we have to control our own bodies through the power of mind is so attractive to so many, including some scientists and physicians. Exhibit A is Ted Kaptchuk, the researcher from Harvard University responsible for spinning an interesting study of placebo effects in asthma into the invocation of the power of placebo. Kimball Atwood has written extensively about Kaptchuk recently, revealing his rather dubious background and arguments. More recently, however, Kaptchuk seems to be everywhere, appearing in articles and interviews, promoting just the argument I’m talking about, that CAM is a way of harnessing placebo effects, so much so that I felt it was time to take a look at this argument.


Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, antineoplastons, and the selling of an orphan drug as a cancer cure

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time (and, characteristically, verbiage) analyzing the phenomenon known as Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his “cancer cure” known as antineoplastons. In part I of this series, Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R., I used the legal threats against bloggers criticizing the credulous promotion by the British press of fundraising campaigns to send children with terminal cancer to the Burzynski Clinic and the promotion of the medical propaganda movie Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business to review the movie’s claims and look into Burzynski’s claims for antineoplastons. Not surprisingly, I found the evidence for extravagant claims for their anticancer effects unconvincing. In part II, Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?, I looked into Dr. Burzynski’s recent efforts to “diversify his portfolio, in which he has apparently decided to ride the new wave of genomic medicine to claim he can do “personalized, gene-targeted cancer therapy.” I concluded that he does appear to do that, only very badly, in essence “making it up as he goes along.”

In this third and final part, I want to come back to antineoplastons, because it has been pointed out to me that there is an aspect of this story that has received little attention. One reader in particular has helped enormously in my education about this aspect of the Burzynski saga. I wish I could credit this person by name, but, for reasons I fully understand, I can’t. However, this person’s input was essential, and I’ve even appropriated (with permission, of course) a little bit of text here and there from our e-mail exchanges to “integrate” into this post. Putting this together with information in my previous posts, I think we can come to some conclusions about what it is that Dr. Burzynski is really doing.

Burzynski and an orphan drug

In the first part of this series, I pointed out that back in the 1970s Dr. Burzynski claimed to have discovered cancer-fighting substances in human urine, which he dubbed “antineoplastons,” claiming that patients with cancer had lower levels of these substances in their blood and urine. However, I was pretty vague about just what these substances were, other than to point out that they were modified amino acids and that since 1980 Dr. Burzynski has been synthesizing them in a chemistry lab rather than isolating them from urine as he had done up until then. This vagueness came simply from my interest in moving straight to looking at Burzynski’s claims rather than what these substances were. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake. The reason is that understanding what two of Burzynski’s antineoplastons are is critical to understanding what he is doing with them and why he might occasionally appear to be observing an antitumor response.

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Legal, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Integrative Medicine: “Patient-Centered Care” is the new Medical Paternalism

Integrative Pitchmen

Several of us have written about how contemporary quacks have artfully pitched their wares to a higherbrow market than their predecessors were accustomed to, back in the day. Through clever packaging,* quacks today can reasonably hope to become professors at prestigious medical schools, to control and receive substantial grant money from the NIH, to preside over reviews for the Cochrane Collaboration, to be featured as guests and even as hosts on mainstream television networks and on PBS, to issue opinions in the name of the National Academy of Sciences, to be patronized by powerful politicians, and even to be chosen by U.S. presidents to chair influential government commissions.

The most successful pitch so far, and the one that the fattest quack-cats of all have apparently decided to bet the farm on, is “integrative medicine” (IM). Good call: the term avoids any direct mention of the only thing that distinguishes it from plain medicine. Its proponents, unsurprisingly, have increasingly come to understand that when they are asked to explain what IM is, it is prudent to leave some things to the imagination. They’re more likely to get a warm reception if they lead people to believe that IM has to do with reaching goals that almost everyone agrees are worthy: compassionate, affordable health care for all, for example.

In that vein, the two most consistent IM pitches in recent years—seen repeatedly in statements found in links from this post—are that IM is “preventive medicine” and that it involves “patient-centered care.” I demolished the “preventive” claim a couple of years ago, as did Drs. Lipson, Gorski, and probably others. Today I’ll explain why the “patient-centered care” claim is worse than fatuous.


Posted in: Health Fraud, History, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Pediatrics & “CAM” II: just wrong

In November, the journal Pediatrics published an entire supplement devoted to Pediatric Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Legal, Ethical and Clinical Issues in Decision-Making. The authors purport to have “examined current legal, ethical, and clinical issues that arise when considering CAM use for children and identified where gaps remain in law and policy.” (S150) Their aim is to “illustrate the relevance and impact of identified [ethical, legal and clinical] guidelines and principles,” to recommend responses, identify issues needing further consideration, and thus “assist decision makers and act as a catalyst for policy development.” (S153)

Unfortunately, as we saw in Pediatrics & “CAM” I: the wrong solution, the authors’ solution for the “issues that arise when considering CAM use for children” consist, in the main, of placing a huge burden on the practicing physician to be knowledgeable about CAM, keep up with CAM research, educate patients about CAM, warn patients about CAM dangers, refer to CAM practitioners, ensure that CAM practitioners are properly educated, trained and credentialed, and so on.

Limit CAM? Not happening

Curiously absent are recommendations placing responsibility on those who profit from the sale of CAM products and services — the dietary supplement manufacturers, homeopaths, acupuncturists, and the like — whose actions are directly responsible for the deleterious effects on patients’ health detailed in the supplement articles and described in the earlier post.

Apparently the authors’ view is that there is no accommodation to CAM too onerous to ask the practicing physician or the patient to bear. Even though they plainly locate the problems they describe — a missed diagnosis, ineffective treatments, drug therapy interactions, poor advice — in the CAM services and products themselves, suggesting that these services and products be limited or eliminated never seems to cross their minds.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R.

And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

Cleric from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I’ve always wondered about the power of the number three. When it comes to quackery propaganda movies, certainly three seems to be the magic number. For example, The Greater Good, an anti-vaccine propaganda film, features three anecdotes, three children allegedly suffering from vaccine injury, and it interspersed its interviews with experts, both real (such as Dr. Paul Offit) and phony (such as Barbara Loe Fisher) with vignettes from these children’s stories interspersed between them in a highly biased manner. I have to wonder whether these cliches are taught in film school, given that they seem to be so common. Such were the thoughts running through my brain as I watched the latest medical propaganda film by writer/producer Eric Merola that’s floating around the blogosphere and the film circuit, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business. In this movie, there are three testimonials, and, if anything, they are far more manipulative than even the testimonials featured in The Greater Good, because each of them are of the type that portrays doctors as sending a patient home to die; that is, until a “brave maverick doctor,” one Stanislaw R. Burzynski, MD, PhD, comes to the rescue with his unconventional and unproven therapy. The only difference is that this film counts testimonials up to the number three in the beginning as “proof” that Burzynski can cure cancer before lobbing the Holy Hand Grenade of Burzynski towards its foes in the hopes that, being naughty in the filmmaker’s sight, the FDA and Texas Medical Board will snuff it. Or, as a caption says right at very the beginning of the movie:

This is the story of a medical doctor and PhD biochemist who has discovered the genetic mechanism that can cure most human cancers. The opening 30 minutes of this film is designed to thoroughly establish this fact — so the viewer can fully appreciate the events that follow it.

It turns out that the grenade is a dud.

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Pediatrics & “CAM” I: the wrong solution

Oh no!  Not again! The venerable medical journal Pediatrics devotes an entire supplement this month to Pediatric Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Legal, Ethical, and Clinical Issues in Decision-Making.

We sense from the very first sentence that we are in familiar territory:

Rapid increases the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) raise important legal, ethical, clinical, and policy issues. (S150)

“Rapid increases”? And evidence of these “rapid increases?” None cited.

We do, however, see the same shopworn reference to popularity deconstructed elsewhere on SBM. What we learned by actually examining “the large 2007 US survey” which purportedly “revealed that ~4 in 10 adults and 1 in 9 children and youth used CAM products or therapies within the previous year”(S150) is that

…most hard-core CAM modalities are used by a very small percentage of the population. Most are less than five percent. Only massage and manipulation are greater than 10 percent. These numbers are also not significantly different from 10 or 20 years ago — belying the claim that CAM use is increasing.

We also find this definition of “CAM”:

a broad domain of healing resources …other than those intrinsic to the politically dominant health system of a particular society or culture in a given historical period. (S150)

I’m not sure what it takes to become “intrinsic” to the “politically dominant” healthcare system. If it includes being legal, licensed or covered by public and/or private insurance, that would appear to disqualify dietary supplements, chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy, homeopathic products and naturopathy as “CAM” in some, or in some cases all, of the American states.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

A Loose End

In the last post I wondered if Ted Kaptchuk, when he wrote the article titled “Effect of interpretive bias on clinical research,” had understood this implication of Bayes’s Theorem: that interpretations of most scientific investigations are exercises in inverse probability, and thus cannot logically be done without consideration of knowledge external to the investigation in question. I argued that if Kaptchuk had

…understood the point when he wrote his treatise, he was dishonest in not explaining it and in not citing at least one pertinent article, such as Steven Goodman’s (which I’m willing to bet he had read). If he didn’t understand the point he should have withheld his paper.

In researching more of Kaptchuk’s opinions I’ve discovered that he had certainly read Goodman’s article, but that he either didn’t understand it or preferred to obscure its implications in deference to his ongoing project in belittling scientific knowledge. In a letter to the editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2001, Kaptchuk opined that even if “more trials of distant healing with increased methodologic rigor” were positive, it still would not “be persuasive for the medical community”:

The situation resembles the predicament with homeopathy trials, another seemingly implausible intervention, where the evidence of multiple positive randomized, controlled trials will not convince the medical community of its validity. Additional positive trials of distant healing are only likely to further expose the fact that the underpinning of modern medicine is an unstable balance between British empiricism (in the tradition of Hume) and continental rationalism (in the tradition of Kant).

…It seems that the decision concerning acceptance of evidence (either in medicine or religion) ultimately reflects the beliefs of the person that exist before all arguments and observation. [Kaptchuk cites the second of the two Goodman articles that I referred to above, discussed here]


Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Health Fraud, Legal, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Steve Jobs’ cancer and pushing the limits of science-based medicine

Editor’s note: There is an update to this post.

An Apple fanboy contemplates computers and mortality

I’m a bit of an Apple fanboy and admit it freely. My history with Apple products goes way back to the early 1980s, when one of my housemates at college had an Apple IIe, which I would sometimes use for writing, gaming, and various other applications. Indeed, I remember one of the first “bloody” battle games for the IIe. It was called The Bilestoad and involved either taking on the computer or another opponent with battle axes in combat that basically involved hacking each other’s limbs off, complete with chunky, low-resolution blood and gore. (You youngsters out there will be highly amused at the gameplay here.) Of course, it’s amazing that nothing’s changed when it comes to computer games except the quality of graphics. Be that as it may, this same roommate was one of the first students to get a hold of the new Macintosh when it was released in early 1984. I really liked it right from the start but only got to play with it occasionally for a few months. After using a Macintosh SE to do a research project during my last year of medical school, I have used the Macintosh platform more or less exclusively, and the first computer I purchased with my own money was a Mac LC back in 1990 or 1991. Today, I have multiple Apple products, including my MacBook Air, my iPhone, and my old school iPod Classic, among others. Oddly enough, I do not have an iPad, but that’s probably only a matter of time, awaiting software that lets me do actual work on it.

All of this is my typical long-winded way of explaining why I was immensely saddened when I learned of Steve Jobs’ death last week. Ever since speculation started to swirl about his health back 2004 and then again in 2008, capped off by the revelation that he had undergone a liver transplant for a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2009, I feared the worst. Last week, the end finally came. However, there is much to learn relevant to the themes of this blog in examining the strange and unusual case of Steve Jobs. Now, after his death five days ago, which coincidentally came a mere day after the launch of iCloud and the iPhone 4S, it occurs to me that it would be worthwhile to try to synthesize what we know about Jobs’ battle with cancer and then to discuss the use (and misuse) of his story. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do because Jobs was notoriously secretive and I can only rely on what has been published in the media, some of which is conflicting and all of which lacks sufficient detail to come to any definite conclusions, but I will try, hoping that the upcoming release of his biography by Walter Isaacson in couple of weeks might answer some of the questions I still have remaining, given that Isaacson followed Jobs through his battle with cancer and was given unprecedented access to Jobs and those close to him.

In the meantime, I speculate. I hope my speculations are sufficiently educated as not to be shown to be completely wrong, but they are speculations nonetheless.

Posted in: Cancer, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Science and the Media, Surgical Procedures

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.0: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD


The recent albuterol vs. placebo trial reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that experimental subjects with asthma experienced substantial, measured improvements in lung function after inhaling albuterol, but not after inhaling placebo, undergoing sham acupuncture, or “no treatment.” It also found that the same subjects reported having felt substantially improved after either albuterol or each of the two sham treatments, but not after “no treatment.” Anthropologist Daniel Moerman, in an accompanying editorial, wrote, “the authors conclude that the patient reports were ‘unreliable,’ since they reported improvement when there was none”—precisely as any rational clinician or biomedical scientist would have concluded.

In Part 1 of this blog we saw that Moerman took issue with that conclusion. He argued, with just a bit of hedging, that the subjects’ perceptions of improvement were more important than objective measures of their lung function. I wondered how the NEJM editors had chosen someone whose bibliography predicted such an anti-medical opinion. I doubted that Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen, an expert in the pathophysiology of asthma, had ever heard of Moerman. I suggested, in a way that probably appeared facetious, that Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the asthma report, might have recommended him. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine


This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word “doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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