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Archive for Science and Medicine

Ancient Origins of Modern Dietary Demons

glutenlie
There are few aspects of daily existence, particularly in modern society, that are more pervasive than advice on what we should eat. Everyone, including friends, family, strangers on Twitter and self-proclaimed experts in nutrition and health, seems to have an opinion on how to eat in order to improve and prolong our lives. Even legitimate organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of the population add to the cacophony of recommendations on diet.

Readers of Science-Based Medicine should be well aware of the current popularity of avoiding gluten, even absent the diagnosis of celiac disease or thoughtful evaluation for another related condition. Gluten, we are told by gurus and authors of books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, is the one true cause of a host of medical complaints, even autism. Avoid gluten at all costs, they say, and watch the pounds melt away or experience the clearing of your “brain fog.” (more…)

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Less benefit, more risk. Our assumptions about health treatments are probably wrong.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

I’m a health professional, but sometimes a patient as well. And like most patients, I generally don’t want health decisions being made without my input. Yes, I want the best medical information, and the advice of medical professionals, but ultimately I want to make my own decisions about my care. That’s the norm in health care today, but relatively new in the history of medicine.

Medical paternalism, where patient preferences are secondary (or even ignored), is disappearing. Even informed consent, where patients are given information on risks and benefits, doesn’t adequately describe the drive towards a two-way exchange, with an empowered, engaged patient. Today the goal is shared decision making, which describes a mutual decision that is informed by a health professional’s medical knowledge and advice, but also incorporates a patient’s own preferences and wishes. Truly shared decision-making includes an explicit consideration of a treatment’s expected benefits and potential harms, yet reflects patient values.

Screening is a textbook example of why shared decision-making should be our goal. Given the benefits of a disease screening program may be modest, and not without harms, understanding and incorporating individual preference is essential. Some may value the small but incremental benefits of screening, and choose to be screened despite the risks of false positives, investigations, and possible overtreatment. Given the exact same circumstances, another individual may opt to forgo screening, making a different, yet equally acceptable decision. While there are some health interventions for which the benefits are unequivocal, and others for which the harms are just as clear, most health treatments (and interventions like screening) have both benefits and potential harms that must be carefully assessed within the context of patient preferences. Research published earlier this year has identified a significant barrier to truly effective shared decision-making and risk assessment: Across a wide range of interventions, we routinely overestimate the benefits of health treatments, and underestimate their risks. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Mediocre Expectations

Pictured: Relevant.  Oh yeah, it's going to get weird. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust Image Library via the Wikimedia Commons.

Pictured: Relevant. Oh yeah, it’s going to get weird.

I had a dickens of a time writing this entry. The last week has been spent in New York for NECSS. It is safe to say that New York has plenty of distractions for us Dug the Dog types. Reality may be a honey badger, but New York is a squirrel. I say that when I travel I usually do not come across food better than I can find in Portland. Nope. Not true of New York. It joins Paris and New Orleans in the holy trinity of good eats, although I will stick with Pacific Northwest beer. And the rule is that for every day you are gone, three days’ worth of work piles up. I really need to stop taking time off.

I spoke at NECSS on a favorite topic of mine, how acupuncture works. It doesn’t. But I discussed a few studies that I found interesting. Like all studies, no single paper is definitive. The third law of the medical literature states that for every study, there is an equal and opposite study. A bit of an exaggeration perhaps but I do find the direction that the following studies point interesting both as to acupuncture’s mechanism of inaction and how the mind functions, making them worth collecting in an essay. (more…)

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WHO Statement on Reporting Clinical Trials

Flag of the World Health Organization (WHO)

Flag of the World Health Organization (WHO)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently released a new position statement on mandatory reporting of all interventional clinical trials. This is a positive step in the trend towards higher quality and greater transparency in clinical trials.

The underlying ethical concept here is that the public has a right to data that results from experimentation on humans. The researchers do not ethically own that data. They have been granted the privilege of performing research on humans as part of a social contract that includes the timely public reporting of the data.

The WHO statement calls for all registered clinical trial results to be made public in an open-access public forum in a searchable format within 12 months, and publication in the peer-reviewed literature within 24 months. They urge more rapid dissemination, but state that the 12/24 month time frame is the upper limit of when results should be reported.

The WHO statement is part of a larger trend toward greater transparency but also quality in scientific research. It is part of a recognition that we cannot understand how to best practice medicine and allocate resources based upon individual studies. We need to look at the entire scientific literature as a whole. Even when individual studies may be of high quality, there are many potential factors that can distort the scientific literature and therefore misinform doctors, scientists, and regulatory agencies. (more…)

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The Wild West: Tales of a Naturopathic Ethical Review Board

Two recent SBM posts have used the “Wild West” metaphor for poor health care regulation. Arizona may be the wildest: a worst-case scenario of a state licensing pseudoscience as medicine, under the cover of so-called naturopathy “research.” (Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives, some rights reserved).

Right before I left the naturopathic profession, an Arizona naturopath told me that “all NDs are doing something borderline illegal.” Alarmed, I began looking around me.

Arizona naturopathic cancer clinics promote illegal substances, advertise results that are too good to be true, and use compounds that have yet to be proven effective in humans. Many clinics focus on intravenous therapies using ozone, hydrogen peroxide, sodium bicarbonate, vitamin C, and blood UV irradiation; some drugs and herbal preparations for injection are claimed to be imported from Europe.

In Arizona, current regulation enables naturopaths to craft hollow research projects under the cover of a private naturopathic institutional review board (an IRB, also often called an ethical review board). This allows them to legitimize experimentation on patients in private clinics and expand the naturopathic scope of practice in the name of so-called research. The IRB appears to influence the state’s naturopathic board, which seems reluctant to do its job properly.

Naturopathic regulation in Arizona may be the worst-case scenario of any state licensing pseudoscience as medicine. The ramifications are grave. Patients, especially those with cancer or other serious conditions, are easily duped and can be severely harmed by medical practitioners who seem kind, charismatic, and confident, but are actually inept and experimenting without the oversight of an ethical review board.

(more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Legal, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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March Madness: Basketball, Brackets and Psi! Oh my!

complicatedgraph

A complicated graph, shown here mere moments before proving the existence of precognition

In 2011, psychologist Daryl Bem published a highly controversial series of nine experiments designed to tease out the potential existence of precognition, the ability to experience future events. In order to isolate the potential influence of future events on the present, Bem’s experimental design reversed the standard order of psychological investigations. In one experiment, for example, subjects were allowed to practice with random words after having already taken a memory test comprised of some of them.

Bem’s results were controversial for many reasons, mostly because they were positive. But the question of whether or not they should have even been published in the first place, regardless of the results, was raised by many in the scientific and skeptical community. As history has shown us repeatedly, the risk of falsely legitimizing nonsense by publishing positive but typically poorly-designed studies is very real. And negative studies tend to be ignored by believers and policy makers.

Bem’s experimental design was made available from the beginning of his research in 2002, and he encouraged others to perform their own studies. Unfortunately for Bem, attempts at replicating his findings were largely reported, if not always published, as negative. Apparently this was not enough to discourage the intrepid believer. In fact, he currently has a meta-analysis of 90 experiments using the same protocols as his original research under editorial review.

The conclusions of his new analysis [PDF] are, not surprisingly, supportive of the existence of precognition, and in his manuscript he attempts to address all of the skepticism regarding his findings. He even quotes Feynman and implies that physicists are taking the possibility of quantum-based explanations of psi seriously. It’s an interesting read to say the least.

What does NCAA basketball have to do with the topic of psi research?

A new name in the field of parapsychology research has been making headlines since going public with his efforts on the 1st of the month, and not surprisingly the media coverage is increasing now that his findings have been announced. Dr. Mort Fishman, a psychologist and paranormal researcher out of Tuono di Legno University in Florence, has ingeniously incorporated one of the world’s most popular sporting events, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, into a study of precognitive abilities. The results, if they are to be believed, may change the minds of even the hardiest psi skeptics.

In anticipation of March Madness each year, millions of basketball fans around the world fill out tournament brackets in an attempt to correctly predict which teams will win, and ultimately who will emerge victorious from the championship game. Many make a contest out of it, with office pools now a nearly ubiquitous aspect of life this time of year. ESPN even holds a Tournament Challenge, the winner of which is given a chance for $20,000 and a trip to Hawaii. It might even be Mitt Romney this year, leading some to regret their vote in the 2012 Presidential election.

The reasons people give for their choices are myriad, ranging from a thorough evaluation of the various teams’ stats to something as primitive and powerful as a gut feeling or how cute the mascot is. Fishman, an avid basketball fan who played three seasons for the European Basketball Federation’s Florence Nightingales, set out at the beginning of the NCAA college basketball season to determine if there might be a precognitive component to these choices. Inspired by Bem’s study designs, he also incorporated a reversal of standard protocols into his research.

The typical approach to filling out a bracket is to do so before the first game of the tournament. In fact, most official contests require it in order to avoid any unfair advantage. Fishman, who had a league record foul-to-rebound ratio of 2.5 during his stint on the Nightingales, instead asked study participants to fill out their bracket after the completion of the championship game, which was won by beloved perennial tournament underdogs, the Duke Blue Devils. According to Fishman, the most challenging aspect of the study was preventing participants from being exposed to any potential contamination with information about the teams during the season.

We went to great expense to protect subjects from potential bias or even outright cheating by basing their bracket picks on outside information. They were sequestered in a reasonably priced hotel, without access to the internet, television, or radio from November 1st of last year through Monday night. They were not allowed to speak to anyone outside of each other and us. No family. No friends. I think there were a few old Reader’s Digests and maybe a Redbook in the room. Progress requires sacrifice.

Once the brackets were completed and turned over to the research team, the real science began. Each subject entered a sensory deprivation tank and was randomly exposed to the results of 25 of the tournament’s 67 total games. The brackets were analyzed using math to see if subject picks were retroactively impacted by knowing the result of games after the fact. Choosing to courageously forego the stifling process of peer review, Fishman announced the positive findings at a press conference held in the parking lot of a Buffalo Wild Wings eight minutes from Lucas Oil Stadium on East Washington Street in Indianapolis.

Conclusion

As believers in Science-Based Medicine, we must have open minds when it comes to fringe or even highly implausible claims because you never know when seemingly-incontrovertible assumptions about the natural world will be proven wrong. Science is imperfect and historically has been very wrong on many occasions. Experts used to believe that the Earth was flat and we still don’t know how Tylenol even works.

Intellectual humility is a key component of scientific skepticism. Sometimes ideas which were ridiculed turn out to be true. Having a closed mind might help prevent any untrue new idea from being accepted, but some of them are pretty interesting and already very popular with the public. Who are we to judge truth from fiction?

Though the existence of psi has now been proven by the Fishman study, it doesn’t mean that more studies aren’t needed. In fact, the hard part lies ahead. We need to figure out how best to harness its potential in order to improve patient outcomes, and only science can lead the way in that regard. But we must not be afraid of the unknown or of different approaches to discovery. As Endocrinologist Dr. Deepak Chopra said, “All great changes are preceded by chaos.”

 

 

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Wikipedia vs Quackery – Standards vs Chaos

Wikipediasmall

Wikipedia’s front page

Wikipedia, an online open-source encyclopedia, can boast 470 million visitors each month, making it one of the most popular websites on the internet. It is an incredibly useful resource – I think it’s fair to say it is the online reference of record. For that reason people care how topics important to them are represented in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, in fact, has become no less than a battleground over certain controversial topics. In essence people generally want Wikipedia to reflect their opinions on controversial topics, and if it doesn’t then there must be something wrong with Wikipedia (rather than there being something wrong with their opinions). I don’t mean to imply that Wikipedia always gets it right – it is a crowdsourced reference and the content is only as good as the editors. But at least they make honest efforts to be neutral and to have standards.

Those standards are the real conflict here, and it is part of a broader conflict over standards. In medicine there is a standard of care, which in turn is based on an underlying system of professional and scientific standards. Medical education is standardized, students have to pass standardized exams, post-graduate clinical training is standardized, there are standardized exams for specialty certification, there are ethical standards enforced by institutions, hospitals, professional organizations, and the state boards of health, and peer-reviewed journals have standards.

This is all meant to ensure that individual patients receive the highest quality of care.

(more…)

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Psychology and Psychotherapy: How Much Is Evidence-Based?

psychology gone wrong
Despite all those Polish jokes, Poland has its share of good scientists and critical thinkers. A superb new book illustrates that fact in spades:

Psychology Gone Wrong: The Dark Side of Science and Therapy, by Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonski, Witkowski is a psychologist, science writer, and founder of the Polish Skeptics Club; Zatonski is a surgeon and researcher known for debunking unscientific therapies and claims in clinical medicine. Together, they turn a spotlight on research and treatment in the field of psychology. They uncover distressing flaws, show that many commonly accepted psychological principles are based on myths, argue that psychotherapy is a business and a kind of prostitution rather than an effective evidence-based medical treatment, and question whether psychotherapy should even exist, since in most cases it offers no advantage over talking to a friend about one’s problems, and in some cases can cause harm. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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Separating Fact from Fiction in the Not-So-Normal Newborn Nursery: Chiropractic and Craniosynostosis

cranialsutures

Pediatricians, particularly those who spend a significant amount of time caring for newborns, see a lot of babies with unusually-shaped heads. Although to be fair, the fact that the overwhelming majority of vaginally-delivered babies, and quite a few born via Caesarean section, will have a transient and abnormal shape to their heads makes it, well, not unusual. In fact, I rarely make it out of the room without some discussion and reassurance regarding the lumps and bumps of a new arrival’s head.

The potentially lumpy and misshapen head of the newborn occurs for a variety of reasons, some common and some extremely rare. It often is related to the development of the bones of the skull but can also involve the surrounding tissues of the scalp. A vaginal delivery, and some difficult Caesarean births, subject a baby’s head to a lot of pressure. This pressure frequently results in swelling of the scalp that can be quite impressive, but tends to resolve in a day or two.

This same pressure can also cause bleeding, perhaps because of an insufficient amount of vitamin K available to optimally activate clotting, that collects under the top layer of one or more of the bones of the skull. These cephalohematomas can also be impressive and may take weeks to completely resolve. Rarely the trapped blood becomes calcified and requires surgical correction to remove the otherwise-permanent lump and restore a normal contour to the head.

Newborns very frequently have a molded skull. Depending on the timing and severity of the pressure experienced during delivery, the shape and size of the uterus and positioning of the baby in the womb, the newborn can emerge with a variety of head shapes. The most common one that I see is a cone. If you’re thinking of a classic Saturday Night Live sketch right now, you’ve got the correct mental image.

Babies who are breech also have a distinct pattern of molding which involves a flattened and elongated top of the head because of pressure against the uterine wall. Abnormal positioning in the womb can also result in asymmetric molding of the head and facial structures like the jaw, nose and ear. Fortunately these pressure-induced and positional deformities usually resolve without intervention, often within a few days, but some are serious enough to require intervention and even surgical correction.

Why are the cranial bones of newborns so easily molded by the pressure of birth? This is a question I answer frequently for new parents and inexperienced medical students. The answer will segue us into the primary topic of this post, but before I discuss craniosynostosis, and the sadly unsurprising claims of some in the chiropractic community, a review of normal cranial anatomy is in order. (more…)

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Lyme: Two Worlds Compared and Contrasted

The Lyme tick

The western black-legged tick, carrier of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria which causes Lyme disease.

The practice of infectious disease (ID) is both easy and difficult. If you read my ID blog on Medscape you are aware of my trials and tribulations in diagnosing and treating infections.

ID is easy since, at least in theory, diseases have patterns and an infecting organism has a predictable epidemiology and life cycle. So if you can recognize the pattern and relate it to the life cycle and exposure history, you can often make a diagnosis before the cultures come back.

My favorite story is the time I was asked to see a young girl with endocarditis. The history was she had a week of fevers, headache and myalgia that went away for five days, returned for a week, went away for five days and returned yet again.

So I asked her “How was your vacation at Black Butte?”

The look of astonishment on her face as she asked how I knew she had been to Black Butte was so satisfying. (more…)

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