As I write this, I am attending the 2014 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR, Twitter hashtag #AACR14) in San Diego. Basically, it’s one of the largest meetings of basic and translational cancer researchers in the world. I try to go every year, and pretty much have succeeded since around 1998 or 1999. As an “old-timer” who’s attended at least a dozen AACR meetings and presented many abstracts, I can see various trends and observe the attitudes of researchers involved in basic research, contrasting them to that of clinicians. One difference is, as you might expect, that basic and translational researchers tend to embrace new findings and ideas much more rapidly than clinicians do. This is not unexpected because the reason scientists and clinical researchers actually do research is because they want to discover something new. Physicians who are not also researchers become physicians because they want to take care of patients. Because they represent the direct interface between (hopefully) science-based medicine and actual patients, they have a tendency to be more conservative about embracing new findings or rejecting current treatments found not to be effective.
While basic scientists are as human anyone else and therefore just as prone to be suspicious and dismissive of findings that do not jibe with their scientific world view, they can (usually) eventually be convinced by experimental observations and evidence. As I’ve said many times before, the process is messy and frequently combative, but eventually science wins out, although sometimes it takes far longer than in retrospect we think it should have, an observations frequently exploited by advocates of pseudoscience and quackery to claim that their pseudoscience or quackery must be taken seriously because “science was wrong before.” To this, I like to paraphrase Dara O’Briain’s famous adage that just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale that you want. But I digress (although only a little). In accepting the validity of science that indicates either that a medical intervention that was commonly used either doesn’t help, doesn’t help as much as we thought it did, or can even be harmful, they have to contend with the normal human reluctance to admit to oneself that what one was doing before might not have been of value (or might have been of less value than previously believed) or that, worst of all, might have caused harm. Or, to put it differently, physicians understandably become acutely uncomfortable when faced with evidence that the benefit-risk profile of common treatment or test might not be as favorable as previously believed. Add to that the investment that various specialties have in such treatments, which lead to financial conflicts of interest (COI) and desires to protect turf (and therefore income), and negative evidence can have a hard go among clinicians.
One of my favorite shows right now is True Detective, an HBO show in which two cops pursue a serial killer over the course of over 17 years. Starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, it’s an amazingly creepy show, and McConaughey is amazing at playing his character, Rustin Cohle. I’m sad that the show will be ending tomorrow, but I really do want to see how it ends.
Unfortunately, as much as I like Matthew McConaughey as an actor, he is in part responsible for re-inspiring a movement that has the potential to do profound harm to patients and cancer research. That’s because his other big role over the last year has been in an Oscar-nominated movie, Dallas Buyers Club, where he plays Ron Woodroof, an early AIDS patient who in the 1980s smuggled unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas when he thought he found them effective at alleviating his symptoms, distributing them to fellow sufferers by establishing the “Dallas Buyers Club” while battling the FDA. I haven’t seen the movie, and I really don’t want to, given that, from everything I’ve heard about it, it’s basically the story of a “brave maverick” who bucks the FDA, complete with all the tropes about indifferent bureaucrats who don’t care if these brave patients die. That might not be so bad if it weren’t also riddled with inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Worse, the real Woodruff rejected the one truly promising drug at the time, AZT, as hopelessly toxic and instead smuggled drugs like Peptide T, which never panned out. Basically, what Woodruff appears to have smuggled as part of his activities for the “Dallas Buyers Club” was a mixture of useless supplements, experimental drugs that were never approved, and a handful of experimental drugs that showed promise. Meanwhile, the movie portrays the FDA as the implacable enemy of these sorts of activities, jackbooted thugs not unlike the stereotype promoted by “health freedom” quacks who don’t like the FDA preventing them from selling their quackery. As far as I can tell without actually seeing the movie, the overall message is a typical uplifting story of an underdog who fights the power and in doing so finds redemption. (more…)
Affecting public health has a few components. It includes providing a safe environment at home, at work, and in public spaces. It involves protecting the food and water supply from pathogens and toxins. Perhaps the most challenging component, however, is affecting people’s behaviors. Humans are complex psychological animals, and simply providing information to facilitate a rational decision may not always have the intended effect.
Those in power wishing to protect the public from themselves can simply pass laws that coerce people into safer behavior, such as seat belt laws and helmet laws. This approach amounts to outlawing certain unhealthy choices. There is also the “nudge” approach where the unhealthy choice is not outlawed, but the healthier choice is facilitated or made the default choice so that people have to work harder if they still wish to make the unhealthier choice for themselves.
Short of passing laws to force or nudge people in the right direction, the default approach to improving healthy behaviors is to provide information via either public service announcements or warning labels. How effective, however, are such measures? (more…)
You may have noticed that men and women are different. I hope you have noticed. As the French say, vive la différence! It’s not just that one has dangly bits and the other has bumpy chests. Or that one has to shave a beard and doesn’t like to ask for directions while the other has menstrual periods and likes to discuss feelings. There are differences in physiology and in the incidence of various diseases. For instance, normal lab values for hemoglobin are higher for men than for women, and autism is more prevalent in males while multiple sclerosis is more prevalent in females.
In the past, women have been underrepresented in clinical studies; when the first studies of aspirin for cardiovascular prevention came out, we knew it was effective for men, but we didn’t have enough evidence to recommend it for women. This is changing; researchers today are more aware of the need to include women in their studies. Now the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) has issued the first evidence-based guidelines for reducing the risk of stroke in women. (more…)
In a recent post I shared a bit of my personal, near-death experience with measles during the US epidemic of 1989-1991. As I describe in that post, I contracted a very serious measles infection at the end of medical school, and was highly infectious when I interviewed for a residency position at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Like others my age who received an ineffective, killed measles vaccine between 1963 and 1967, I had not been adequately protected. The MMR vaccine was not yet available, and no boosters were recommended at the time. Unfortunately, though my measles titers (a test of immunity to measles) were checked when I entered medical school, the school’s student health department failed to notice or respond to the results – I was not immune and did not receive a booster dose at that time, as I should have. That mistake was huge, and could have cost me my life. It also caused me to potentially sicken many vulnerable children during my tour of the hospital, as well as others I may have inadvertently exposed during the window of communicability as I walked the streets of Seattle. The Department of Health had to be called to trace all of my steps and attempt to track down and protect any potential contacts.
The last couple of weeks, I’ve made allusions to the “Bat Signal” (or, as I called it, the “Cancer Signal,” although that’s a horrible name and I need to think of a better one). Basically, when the Bat Cancer Signal goes up (hey, I like that one better, but do bats get cancer?), it means that a study or story has hit the press that demands my attention. It happened again just last week, when stories started hitting the press hot and heavy about a new study of mammography, stories with titles like Vast Study Casts Doubts on Value of Mammograms and Do Mammograms Save Lives? ‘Hardly,’ a New Study Finds, but I had a dilemma. The reason is that the stories about this new study hit the press largely last Tuesday and Wednesday, the study having apparently been released “in the wild” Monday night. People were e-mailing me and Tweeting at me the study and asking if I was going to blog it. Even Harriet Hall wanted to know if I was going to cover it. (And you know we all have a damned hard time denying such a request when Harriet makes it.) Even worse, the PR person at my cancer center was sending out frantic e-mails to breast cancer clinicians because the press had been calling her and wanted expert comment. Yikes!
What to do? What to do? My turn to blog here wasn’t for five more days, and, although I have in the past occasionally jumped my turn and posted on a day not my own, I hate to draw attention from one of our other fine bloggers unless it’s something really critical. Yet, in the blogosphere, stories like this have a short half-life. I could have written something up and posted it on my not-so-secret other blog (NSSOB, for you newbies), but I like to save studies like this to appear either first here or, at worst, concurrently with a crosspost at my NSSOB. (Guess what’s happening today?) So that’s what I ended up doing, and in a way I’m glad I did. The reason is that it gave me time to cogitate and wait for reactions. True, it’s at the risk of the study fading from the public consciousness, as it had already begun to do by Friday, but such is life.
I don’t think it can be repeated too many times during flu season: People can die of the flu.
The flu vaccine is one of the two vaccines most easily demonized by the antivaccine movement. The first, of course, is Gardasil (or Cervarix), the vaccine against HPV. The reason why Gardasil is so easily demonized is because it protects against an infection whose end result of cancer is many years in the future. Alt-med fans frequently castigate “conventional medicine” for not emphasizing prevention enough, but HPV vaccines put the lie to that. HPV vaccines protect against an infection that is usually fairly harmless in and of itself but has the long term effect of vastly increasing the risk of at least one potentially deadly cancer, and likely several others. Also, HPV infections are commonly sexually transmitted, allowing the moralistic wing of the antivaccine movement and misguided religious people in essence to “slut shame” the vaccine by arguing that it will encourage promiscuity by removing one of the consequences of sexual intercourse, one of the stupidest arguments against the HPV in existence. (Seriously, does anyone think teens and young adults, when their hormones are raging, worry about maybe the possibility of maybe getting cancer 20 years down the road when on the verge of a night of passion now? I don’t.) (more…)
One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 for the blog, besides looking for talented bloggers to add to our pool of awesome bloggers, was to try to look at areas of science-based medicine that we don’t often cover (or haven’t covered before), such as the delivery of health care. Fear not, I’ll certainly do enough posts on the usual topics, but I am going to make a conscious effort to diversify a bit, if only for my own personal growth. Ironically enough, in the couple of months before the end of 2013, just such an issue came up in my state. Uncharacteristically (for SBM at least) the topic I’m going to take a look at has nothing to do with the infiltration of the pseudo-medicine known as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” into academia or CAM practitioners like naturopaths or chiropractors trying to lobby state legislatures for greater scope of practice to ply their pseudo-medicine on an unsuspecting public. It does, however, have to do with expanding the scope of practice of a group of medical professionals, and, unexpectedly and disappointingly, it’s a proposal that’s had considerable resistance from various physicians’ societies in the state. I’m referring to advanced practice nurses (APRNs), often referred to as nurse practitioners (NPs).
Before I go on, it’s necessary for me to point out my conflict of interest. No, I haven’t received funding from the all-powerful American Association of Nurse Practitioners (whose influence, actually, is dwarfed by state medical societies and various physician groups). I do, however, have a very personal relationship with a nurse practitioner, namely my wife. However, I would point out that she hasn’t been an NP that long, and I routinely worked with NPs collaboratively long before the idea of becoming a nurse or even an NP was even a germ of a thought in my wife’s brain. Make of that admission what you will as you read on.
Rats. Harriet stole what was going to be the title of this post! This is going to be something completely different than what I usually write about. Well, maybe not completely different, but different from the vast majority of my posts. As Dr. Snyder noted on Friday, it’s easy to find new woo-filled claims or dangerous, evidence-lacking trends to write about. Heck, I did it just last week, much to the continued consternation of one of our regular readers and commenters. Examining certain other health-related issues from a science-based perspective is more difficult, but I feel obligated to do it from time to time, not just for a change of pace but to stimulate the synapses and educate myself—and, I hope, you as well—about areas outside of my usual expertise.
We spend a lot of time writing about the scientific basis of medicine, clinical trials, what is and isn’t quackery, and how “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) subverts the scientific basis of medicine. However, SBM goes far beyond just that. At least I think of it this way. That’s why I’ve looked at issues that go more to the heart of health policy, which should be based on sound science and evidence. That evidence might take different forms than it does for determining, for example, whether Medicaid results in better health outcomes and by how much health insurance does the same. As is the case with policy issues and economics, conclusions are muddled and messy. The error bars are huge, and the number of potential confounders even huger. (more…)