Do you take a vitamin or dietary supplement? It’s increasingly likely that you do, as over half of all American adults took some sort of supplement over the past 30 days. Now there’s evidence to suggest that about one-third of all Americans are taking supplements and prescription drug at the same time, which is renewing questions about risks and benefits. The same study reveals that combining supplements and prescription drugs is more common among those with certain medical conditions, compared to those without.
Many of us supplement in the absence of evidence of benefit, or even medical need. For example, there is little persuasive evidence to suggest that routine supplementation with products like multivitamins is necessary. There are exceptions of course: Those potentially becoming pregnant, those on dietary restrictions (e.g., vegans), and those with demonstrable medical need are among the cases where there is a clear benefit to vitamin supplementation, for example. The majority of us take supplements, like multivitamins, for “insurance” rather than because we have a deficiency or medical need. The evidence for non-vitamin supplements, like herbal products, is just as questionable as it is for vitamins, with few products showing meaningful health benefits. Ultimately decisions about supplements come down to evaluations of risk and benefits. Since I started working as a pharmacist, I’ve always cautioned consumers about the quality concerns and efficacy with herbal products and supplements, and the resultant risks that make me very hesitant to suggest their routine use – especially when they’re combined with prescription drugs. Yet the evidence suggests that it’s occurring – with increasing frequency. (more…)
If you have children, there’s a good chance you’ve had experience with head lice. Head lice affects as many as 12 million people in the US each year, mostly children. Compared to other health conditions, it is a trivial problem; but it is common and annoying. It can cause itching, notes sent home from school, and often a strong “yuck” reaction. Fortunately, several effective treatments are available, including enough “natural” options to please any critic of Big Pharma.
Louse diagram, Micrographia, Robert Hooke, 1667
Pediculosis humanus var capitis is a bloodsucking parasitic insect specific to humans. It is 2.5-3 mm long and flattish. It can’t jump or fly or even walk efficiently, but is easily transferred, usually by head-to-head contact with an infected person or less often with an infected person’s headgear, comb, towel, or other object. Infestation is not a sign of poor hygiene. Lice bite and suck blood 4-5 times daily, injecting an anti-coagulant in their saliva. Mommy lice live for up to 3 months and lay up to 300 eggs at a rate of 3-4 a day. They glue the eggs individually to a hair shaft, usually close to the scalp but in warm climates as far as 6 inches from the scalp. They hatch in 6-10 days, after which the empty egg cases move further and further from the scalp as the hair grows out. The diagnosis can be made by seeing live, moving lice and finding nits (the egg or young lice) on the hair. The best place to look for them is behind the ear and at the nape of the neck. Nits can be confused with dandruff and debris, but these can usually be brushed away while nits remain firmly stuck to the hair shaft. Nits alone are not enough to make the diagnosis of active infestation. They may be either alive or dead: empty or nonviable egg cases may still be present long after the infestation has resolved. (more…)
There are two topics about which I know a fair amount. The first is Infectious Disease. I am expert in ID, Board Certified and certified bored, by the ABIM. The other, although to a lesser extent, is SCAMs.
When I read the literature on these topics, I do so with extensive knowledge and, in the case of ID, 30 years of clinical experience. The extensive knowledge, and, one hopes, understanding, has led me to read meta-analyses with a grain of salt substitute. They average meta-analysis and systematic review is good for gaining a general understanding of the topic within, as well as, and here is the key phrase, the limitations of the included studies.
And like all the published literature, when writing a meta-analysis, those with an axe to grind will grind it. Even, or perhaps especially, the Cochrane reviews.
Just because something is labelled as a systematic review does not mean it is any good. We have to be just as vigilant now as ever. Even a review with a Cochrane label does not make its true. Four out of 12 Cochrane reviews on acupuncture were wrong. Caveat lector rules, OK? (more…)
Think you need to see a doctor? How about seeing him (or her) on your computer (or tablet or smart phone) screen instead of in the doctor’s office?
The technology of telemedicine, or telehealth, is here. So far, there is no single definition of what it does, and does not, encompass. For example, in some definitions, one of which we discuss today, it includes only video communication. Other definitions are broader, including fax, telephone, and e-mail. Here, we focus mainly on the direct patient-physician telemedicine encounter, unmediated by the presence of a physician who has actually seen the patient face-to-face. This is unlike, for example, the more common specialist consultation, in which the patient and physician have met face-to-face and the specialist is brought in via technology. A typical example of this is the radiologist who reads x-rays from a remote location. (Sometimes so remote that the radiologist isn’t even in the same country.) There is some evidence, but not much yet, that certain kinds of physician-mediated telemedicine can benefit the patient.
One can think of many ways a patient’s accessing a doctor via computer might improve access to healthcare. This could be a godsend for patients in rural areas who must drive an hour or more to find a doctor’s office. For example, here’s a program from the University of Mississippi Medical Center:
The Diabetes Telehealth Network will [put telemedicine] technology in the hands of the patients themselves in the form of Internet-capable tablets equipped with the Care Innovations™ Guide platform.
The Care Innovations™ Guide platform enables health-care providers to offer a clinically driven, fully integrated remote care management solution for populations with chronic conditions. The project will recruit up to 200 patients in Sunflower County, MS, who will use Care Innovations technology to share health data, such as weight, blood pressure, and glucose levels, daily with clinicians.
The BBC reports that 11 doctors and a GlaxoSmithKline regional manager in Poland have been charged with alleged corruption. The apparent scheme was simple — GSK sales reps are given targets for new prescriptions for whatever drugs they are promoting. In order to meet those targets, it is alleged that one sales rep agreed to pay doctors £100 to give educational lectures to patients. The lectures never took place, and it was understood that in exchange for the payment the doctors would prescribe more of the rep’s drug.
The case is still under investigation but one doctor has already admitted guilt, stating that the £100 was simply too tempting.
Assuming the charges are upheld, such cases are very damaging to public confidence in the system. This is similar to cases of researchers faking their published research — I cringe every time I read about such cases.
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?
Does Tamiflu have any meaningful effects on the prevention or treatment of influenza? Considering the drug’s been on the market for almost 15 years, and is widely used, you should expect this question has been answered after 15 flu seasons. Answering this question from a science-based perspective requires three steps: Consider prior probability, be systematic in the approach, and get all the data. It’s the third step that’s been (until now) impossible with Tamiflu: Some data was unpublished. In general, there’s good evidence to show that negative studies are less likely to be published than positive studies. Unless unpublished studies are included, systematic reviews are more likely to miss negative data, which means there’s the risk of bias in favor of an intervention.
The absence of a full data set on Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and the other neuraminidase inhibitor Relenza (zanamivir) became a rallying point for BMJ and the AllTrials campaign, which seeks to enhance the transparency and accessibility of clinical trials data by challenging trial investigators to make all evidence freely available. (Reforming and enhancing access to trial data was one of the most essential changes recommended by Ben Goldacre in his book, Bad Pharma.) In 2009, Tamiflu’s manufacturer, Hoffman-La Roche committed to making the Tamiflu data set available to investigators. Now after four years of back-and-forth between BMJ, investigators, and Roche, the full clinical trials data set has been made freely available. An updated systematic review was published today in BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal), entitled “Oseltamivir for influenza in adults and children: systematic review of clinical study reports and summary of regulatory comments.” This will be a short post covering the highlights. As the entire study and accompanying data are freely available, I’ll await continued discussion in the comments. (more…)
I’ve always thought of Tylenol (AKA acetaminophen in the US and paracetamol in the UK) as one of the safest drugs around, with essentially no side effects when used as directed. But it has been in the limelight lately. Several SBM articles have addressed it here, here, and here. We know there is a risk of liver damage and death with acetaminophen overdose or accidental ingestion (458 deaths a year in the US). Since it is included in many other products (painkillers, cold and cough remedies, etc.) consumers may not realize how much they’re taking. The FDA has addressed this problem, and reformulations and lower daily dose recommendations are being implemented; but there is still no guarantee that consumers will realize that their “non-aspirin pain reliever,” pain pills like Vicodin, and many cold, sinus, and cough remedies have the same ingredient as Tylenol.
We have gradually become aware of other dangers not associated with overdose. Acetaminophen has been associated with kidney damage (especially with long-term use), gastrointestinal symptoms, and cardiovascular events. Combining the recommended dose with alcohol ingestion can lead to liver failure. It can also interact with some other drugs, for instance isoniazid. Allergic reactions can occur, and 7% of patients who are allergic to aspirin or NSAIDs also react to acetaminophen. It is excreted in breast milk, but in very low concentrations. The manufacturer’s professional product information includes detailed listings of reported reactions, drug/drug interactions, and safety studies in patients with various diseases. There is no need to adjust dosage for the elderly or for those with liver or kidney disease. For most patients, including those with chronic disease, acetaminophen is the pain-reliever of choice due to its low risk. But recently a draft recommendation from the UK’s NICE (National Institute of Health and Care Excellence) has warned us against using it, at least to treat the pain of osteoarthritis. (more…)
Pollyanna, a popular children’s book written in 1913 by Eleanor H. Porter, introduced the world to one of the most optimistic fictional characters ever created. She always saw the good in people and her approach to life frequently involved playing “The Glad Game”, where she attempted to find something to appreciate in every situation no matter how unfortunate. She was glad about receiving crutches rather than a doll one Christmas because it was great that she didn’t actually need them. She teaches this philosophy to those around her, even her cantankerous Aunt Polly, and the entire town is transformed into a veritable Mayberry, USA. Later, when she actually does require the use of crutches, her resolve is tested but she triumphantly finds a silver lining.
The Pollyanna principle, first described by Matlin and Stang in 1978 and also known as positivity bias, is a psychological tendency for people to place greater importance on, and assume better accuracy of, descriptive statements about them that are positive. This goes on behind the scenes while our conscious brain tends to dwell on what is perceived as negative stimuli. Though many folks do come across as pessimistic, we are subconsciously biased to accept praise and reject criticism. Anyone who isn’t clinically depressed is on some level more like Pollyanna than Eeyore.
This positivity bias also plays a large role in how we remember past events. As has been covered extensively in prior posts here on SBM, and on Dr. Novella’s excellent Neurologica blog, memory isn’t a replayed video or audio recording of prior events and our interpretations of them, but rather is a reconstruction that is prone to errors during processing and editing that accumulate over time. This leads to false memories that feel no less real than our recollection of what happened five minutes ago.
In this case, the Pollyanna principle results in positive information being more accurately processed and recalled than negative experiences. It also causes our memory of negative events to gradually become less negative as the years go by. I couldn’t have done that terribly during my first high school trumpet solo because I remember people telling me it was pretty good afterwards, right?
So what does this have to do with the practice of medicine? Biases that affect memory also impact how physicians and patients interact. I once assumed the overnight care of a child who had undergone a lumbar puncture performed by one of my female colleagues earlier that day. I ordered no tests and performed no procedures during my brief exposure to the family—yet over a year later when I admitted the same child for a completely different reason I was accused of being the terrible doctor who had unnecessarily subjected their baby to a spinal tap during the last hospitalization. Even after I showed them the documentation which proved that I had nothing to do with that (very appropriate) decision, and that I did not put a needle in their child’s spine, they refused to accept the evidence and had great difficulty trusting my diagnosis and recommendations.