Articles

Archive for Science and Medicine

Pharmacists Selling Snakeoil

snake-oil

Edzard Ernst published an excellent editorial today addressing the question of why pharmacists sell bogus products. Our own resident pharmacist, Scott Gavura, expressed similar points here on SBM a year ago. Their points are worth emphasizing and expanding upon.

Professional ethics

The explicit premise of both editorials is that pharmacists, like physicians, are health care professionals. Being a professional means adhering to certain professional standard of quality control and ethical behavior. A profession is essentially a contract with society – the profession gets exclusive rights to certain commercial behaviors, and in return promises to maintain adequate quality control and to act in the best interests of society and their individual clients.

When a profession puts their own commercial interests ahead of society or their individual customers, they have violated that contract.

There are multiple layers of regulation to maintain quality and ethical standards in the health care professions. Once a profession is licensed, they basically self-regulate, with members of the profession establishing the standard of care. Standardized testing designed by the profession is used to establish competence or specialized expertise.

(more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →

Horses, Zebras, and the Availability Heuristic

It was a chevrotain.

It was a chevrotain. (Josh More, Flickr)

During a particularly difficult shift early in my career, I spent the better part of two hours at the bedside with a patient’s family discussing the unexpected discovery of a large tumor in their child’s brain. The implications of the finding were grave, and the family was understandably devastated. I was just a few years out of residency and this was the first time I had made such a life altering diagnosis by myself, and it was by far the hardest news I had ever had to break to a family. Needless to say it was an experience that I will never forget, and one that has influenced my approach to medicine ever since.

The diagnosis was a surprise to everyone. There were of course red flags that appropriately led to the ordering of an MRI, but I really didn’t expect it to find anything. It wasn’t based on the fear of a lawsuit or the discomfort with uncertainty, influences that dictate the practice of medicine far too often, with the latter being considerably more of a problem (in my opinion). There was enough to support embarking on an encephalic expedition, but nothing so blatant as to really raise my suspicions.  My guard was down and my emotional response to the situation was intense. Later, after care of the patient had been transferred to the pediatric oncology service, my introspective nature took over.

The sound of approaching hoofbeats

In medical school, there is an old adage often passed down to learners by seasoned physicians that serves to rein in an overly broad differential diagnosis, particularly when it includes increasingly unlikely etiologies. When one hears the sound of approaching hoofbeats, the inexperienced students are cautioned, one should expect to see horses rather than zebras. The world of medicine rarely mimics an episode of House, M.D. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →

Why Science-Based Medicine Matters

A child with smallpox; the cost of unscientific medicine. This is why science-based medicine matters.

A child with smallpox; the cost of unscientific medicine. This is why science-based medicine matters.

The regular contributors at Science-Based Medicine (SBM) work diligently every week to explore the world of science-based medicine and the gauzy, nebulous netherworld of fantasy-based medicine. They shine light on the leading edge of medical science, dissect the nuances of mainstream care, expose the misconceptions and sometimes the frank deceptions of so-called alternative medicine. Launching SBM on January 1, 2008, sbmadmin (Steven Novella?) described the mission of the blog as: “scientifically examin[ing] medical and health topics of interest to the public [including] reviewing newly published studies, examining dubious products and claims, providing much needed scientific balance to the often credulous health reporting, and exploring issues related to the regulation of scientific quality in medicine.” He went on to propound an elegant yet simple core philosophy that “safe and effective health care is critical to everyone’s quality of life; so much so that it is generally considered a basic human right.”

This last deserves, I think, especially careful consideration. Enshrined in the aspirational manifesto of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, is the claim for all people to inherent and inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And while Jefferson used the phrase in the context of personal political freedoms, health is central to the exercise of those rights. It is the role of medicine to secure health, to provide a structure and a system by which all can live life as long and as free from disease and disability as our individual circumstances allow. (more…)

Posted in: History, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →

Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Snake Oil

noel edmonds
Noel Edmonds is a game show host, famous for Britain’s version of Deal or No Deal. As far as I can tell, he has no medical or scientific qualifications at all. This unfortunately has not stopped him from using his celebrity status to offer dubious medical advice via his Twitter feed. Such is the world in which we live.

Edmonds tweeted, referring to the EMP Pad:

A simple box that slows ageing, reduces pain, lifts depression and stress and tackles cancer. Yep tackles cancer!

This Twitter-brief statement packs in many red flags for quackery and snake oil: such as a simple device that can tack a wide range of medical conditions that do not appear to share a common cause or mechanism. The word “tackle” is vague, but implies either a cure or at least a significant treatment. Anyone claiming to treat or cure cancer deserves close scrutiny.

In response, cancer patient Vaun Earl tweeted:

I think Noel Edmonds should stick to what he’s good at. Presenting quiz shows and beard trimming, rather than curing cancer.

To which Edmonds responded:

Scientific fact-disease is caused by negative energy. Is it possible your ill health is caused by your negative attitude? #explore.

(more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Medical devices, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →

Is there a reproducibility “crisis” in biomedical science? No, but there is a reproducibility problem

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.

Journal of Irreproducible ResultsMost scientists I know get a chuckle out of the Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR), a humor journal that often parodies scientific papers. Back in the day, we used to chuckle at articles like “Any Eye for an Eye for an Arm and a Leg: Applied Dysfunctional Measurement” and “A Double Blind Efficacy Trial of Placebos, Extra Strength Placebos and Generic Placebos.” Unfortunately, these days, reporting on science is giving the impression that the JIR is a little too close to the truth, at least when it comes to reproduciblity, so much so that the issue even has its own name and Wikipedia entry: Replication (or reproducibility) crisis. It’s a topic I had been meaning to write about again for a while. Fortunately, A recent survey published in Nature under the somewhat clickbaity title “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility” finally prodded me to look into this question again. Before I get to the survey itself, though, I can’t help but do my usual pontificating to provide a bit of background.
(more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →

Does your antivax doctor have another agenda?

A witch placing a scorpion into a potSeveral weeks back, I wrote a piece in praise of Michigan’s Fresh Air Camp’s decision to admit only properly vaccinated children. Predictably, there was a bit of a backlash from people who, despite the obvious benefits, oppose vaccinations.

I can’t fault a parent for the decisions they make for their kids. We all work from the gut when it comes to our children, and this can make us see risks incorrectly. But I cannot forgive people who should know better. Medical professionals should all support basic public health such as vaccination, just as they should support healthy eating, physical activity, and clean water. I feel strongly enough about this that I have called for pulling the licenses of doctors who oppose vaccination.

As usual when I write about vaccines, I got plenty of hate mail and disturbing blog comments – no biggie. That’s part of standing up for the truth. What really disturbed me was a local doctor, here in the same community that the camps serve, coming out publicly against the new policy. When a medical professional weighs in on a matter of public health, people listen. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (0) →

Newborn Phototherapy and Cancer: Cutting Edge Research or “Big Data” Failure?

intensive-phototherapy

Photo by Mike Blyth

While social media and news outlets were reacting, or in some cases overreacting, to a new rodent-based medical study on the unlikely link between cell phone use and brain cancer last month, two studies and an accompanying commentary were quietly published in Pediatrics that raised similar concerns. Rather than cell phone use, the proposed potential cause of pediatric cancer in these newly published papers was phototherapy, a common treatment for newborn jaundice that I use regularly and have written about before. My previous post has a full review of jaundice in the newborn, how it can potentially cause permanent brain damage, and why phototherapy is a safe and effective treatment in most cases.

But is phototherapy truly safe? Can exposure to a narrow spectrum of blue light increase the risk of cancer in young children? And if so, what type or types of cancer? This is exactly what the study authors set out to investigate using the power of “Big Data.” Time will eventually tell us if the authors’ conclusions are justified or if they will end up only serving as excellent future examples of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →

Fooling Myself

They may have different packages, but these products are all the same inside.

Nothing says opportunistic like selling water for pain control.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve been fooled by my own experience again and again. I’ve made bad decisions and wasted time and money believing what I was seeing, instead of being objective and looking at the evidence. One of my most memorable lessons has come over the past 14 years with my Labrador Retriever, Casey.

First the personal

We acquired Casey as a puppy, and she was less than a year old when she started limping. Investigations confirmed dysplasia, a genetic condition that leads to degenerative joints, arthritis, and pain. We were devastated. After considering the few treatment options that existed, we decided to skip surgery and treat it conservatively. I had no desire to start her on a lifetime of anti-inflammatory drugs, being very familiar with their side effect profile. I was familiar with a supplement used widely in humans that had some weak but somewhat promising evidence: We started giving her glucosamine and chondroitin supplements regularly. And we watched and waited.

It took some time, but Casey did appear to improve. We were thrilled. Life went on, and other than the occasional rough play session, Casey’s limping was mild, and she thrived. We continued the supplements, confident that we were doing good. But eventually I started paying attention to the emerging evidence on glucosamine and chondroitin. Once touted as a panacea for arthritis and joint pain, there had finally been some high-quality trials conducted – and the results were disappointing. Even this blog covered the issue, and contributors like Harriet were skeptical of glucosamine. Its supposed mechanism of action really wasn’t even that plausible. I started to wonder if the supplements were really doing anything for my dog’s pain. Eventually I decided on a trial – so I stopped the supplements about seven years after I started them. Neither my wife nor I could notice any difference at all in her mobility. Nor did the veterinarian. We’d been fooling ourselves, spending hundreds of dollars in the process. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →

Uncertainty in Medicine

snowball
Medicine is an uncertain business. It is an applied science, applying the results of basic science knowledge and clinical studies to patients who are individuals with differing heredity, environment, and history. It is commonly assumed that modern science-based doctors know what they are doing, but quite often they don’t know for certain. Different doctors interpret the same evidence differently; there is uncertainty about how valid the studies’ conclusions are and there is still considerable uncertainty and disagreement about things like guidelines for screening mammography and statin prescriptions.

Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven Hatch, MD, is a book about uncertainty in medicine. The title refers to the difficulty of interpreting a mammogram, trying to pick out the shadows that signify cancer from a veritable blizzard of similar shadows. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →

Australian Chiropractor Ian Rossborough Promises to Stop Treating Children…for Twenty Days

kangaroochiro

An Australian chiropractor treating a baby kangaroo makes as much sense as treating a human child

Before I begin this brief update to my recent post on Australian baby chiropractor Ian Rossborough’s “crack heard round the world,” I want to give a quick thanks to Jann Bellamy for organizing our day of Science-Based Medicine at NECSS last week. It was an amazing experience sharing the stage with the SBM crew for my first public presentation, and finally getting to meet Scott, John, and Saul. I’ve given hundreds of lectures to residents and students, and even a grand rounds or two, but this was orders of magnitude more exciting and stressful. I may be biased, but I think we nailed it.

With NECSS prep taking up a significant percentage of my time and a rough current work week making up for days off, my post today is a little shorter than usual. My overall average word count still gives Gorski a run for his money however. Well, that’s not actually true. Gorski is in another league.

Rossborough provides an undertaking?

Chiropractor Ian Rossborough, who I recently discussed in a post on the backlash against pediatric chiropractic in Australia, has received the slap on the wrist I sadly expected. According to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency website, which has jurisdiction over the Chiropractic Board of Australia when it comes to “professional conduct, performance or health of registered health practitioners,” Rossborough has promised to leave them kids alone:
(more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (0) →
Page 1 of 93 12345...»