The greatest strength of science is that it is self-critical. Scientists are not only critical of specific claims and the evidence for those claims, but they are critical of the process of science itself. That criticism is constructive – it is designed to make the process better, more efficient, and more reliable.
One aspect of the process of science that has received intense criticism in the last few years is an over-reliance on P-values, a specific statistical method for analyzing data. This may seem like a wonky technical point, but it actually cuts to the heart of science-based medicine. In a way the P-value is the focal point of much of what we advocate for at SBM.
Recently the American Statistical Association (ASA) put out a position paper in which they specifically warn against misuse of the P-value. This is the first time in their 177 years of existence they have felt the need to put out such a position paper. The reason for this unprecedented act was their feeling that abuse of the P-value is taking the practice of science off course, and a much needed course correction is overdue. (more…)
Real medicine is built on high quality data. That’s one lesson I learned through my rehabilitation as a former naturopath. I can assure you that this principle does not apply to naturopathy or any of the other types of alternative medicine, which are mostly based on anachronistic traditions, magical thinking, and poor academic integrity. I now know that real medicine incorporates any therapy scientifically demonstrated to be effective and safe, regardless of origin. Therapies that fail to demonstrate effectiveness remain alternative for good reason.
I made a sharp turn in my career when I realized this, but I was recently surprised to learn that a failure to respect the data can sometimes also characterize medicine. I’m not trying to fool anyone with an appeal to hypocrisy (often used by alternative medicine zealots to argue that their beliefs are somehow valid simply because medicine has problems). But I do want to draw attention to a problem with medical research, which has the potential to undermine science-based medicine and take us down the dark path of misinformed medicine — medicine based on incomplete data.
Most people probably don’t realize that a majority of clinical trials do not report their findings.[1–3] About half of trials conducted before 2007, before it was legally required to register and report clinical trials, have never been published.[4, 5] Even since stronger legal mandates were enacted, most clinical trials still are not registered or reported.[1–3] As a result, there is a huge amount of clinical data unknown to the medical community and not available to clinicians or patients.
This effectively means that medical decisions can be based on incomplete information, not only diminishing the effectiveness of treatments but also eroding the perceived plausibility of medical interventions over time. This is what Sense About Science’s AllTrials campaign is all about: ensuring that all clinical trials register and report results in a publicly-available database. I see it as an obvious and straightforward means to improve medicine. (more…)
I had the pleasure of speaking on the topic of chiropractic and the newborn baby earlier this week at a meeting of the Boston Skeptics. There is a video of the talk online for anyone interested in learning more. And if you haven’t yet, please read yesterday’s post on chiropractic and babies by Sam Homola.
My introduction to pediatric chiropractic
Although I was aware of the existence of chiropractic well before beginning my medical training, I was blissfully ignorant of the full scope of what many chiropractors actually do on a daily basis. My belief that they practiced solely as “doctors of the back” was shattered early in my pediatric training at Vanderbilt while on a pulmonary medicine rotation when I was asked to consult on the child of a well-known musician who lived in the area. The patient, perhaps only hours from respiratory failure, had been brought to our emergency department only after chiropractic treatments had failed to manage a severe asthma exacerbation.
That encounter, as well as another around the same time involving a child with a throat abscess being treated with acupuncture, inspired me to dig deeper into the general concept of alternative medicine. I even went so far as to approach a local chiropractor who had set up a table at a Nashville YMCA to promote chiropractic prevention and treatment of the flu. Dr. Fakename happily allowed me to spend a day in his office, and even brought in his own child to demonstrate his approach pediatric care.
Needless to say, Dr. Fakename failed to convince me of the benefits or need for chiropractic involvement in pediatric healthcare. When the discussion turned to routine childhood vaccines, I heard the party line on the subject for the first of many times. Dr. Fakename was not against vaccines, he was in favor of giving families all of the facts. He gave me some reading material, and a book suggestion or two, which provided nothing but potential and unproven risks with no mention of the well-established benefits and proven safety of immunizations. I’ll never forget what his wife, who had brought their child in for the demonstration, whispered to me during a moment of distraction: “Don’t worry, we vaccinate our kids. I make sure.”
By the end of my residency I was a full blown skeptic of a variety of alternative medical modalities in addition to chiropractic, and had built a reputation as someone interested in and knowledgeable on the subject of quackery. I even gave a grand rounds on pediatric CAM with a focus on chiropractic which I’m proud to say drew a standing room only crowd that included folks from the community interested in alternative medicine as well as from the brand new integrative medicine center at Vanderbilt. I had even been asked to serve as a resident representative, however that invitation was quickly rescinded after my skeptical talk. (more…)
My article “Pediatric Chiropractic Care: The Subluxation Question and Referral Risk” was published in the 2016 February issue of the journal Bioethics. The abstract summarizes the message of the article:
Chiropractors commonly treat children for a variety of ailments by manipulating the spine to correct a “vertebral subluxation” or a “vertebral subluxation complex” alleged to be a cause of disease. Such treatment might begin soon after a child is born. Both major American chiropractic associations─the International Chiropractic Association and the American Chiropractic Association─support chiropractic care for children, care that includes subluxation correction as a treatment or preventive measure. I do not know of any credible evidence to support chiropractic subluxation theory. Any attempt to manipulate the immature, cartilaginous spine of a neonate or a small child to correct a putative chiropractic subluxation should be regarded as dangerous and unnecessary. Referral of a child to a chiropractor for such treatment should not be considered lest a bad outcome harms the child or leads to a charge of negligence or malpractice.1
The first objection to my article came in a January 30 Facebook posting by Milehighchiro, a subluxation-based group: (more…)
Is genomic testing as useful as pharmacies claim it can be?
Despite science’s ability to develop sophisticated and targeted new drugs, predicting the effect of a drug in an individual is still maddeningly difficult. Not every drug works for everyone that takes it. Similarly, the very same drug can be well tolerated in some, but can cause intolerable side effects in others. So-called “targeted therapies” were supposed to improve our accuracy, by focusing on specific targets on cells. That’s been good – but not sufficient to make drug treatments more consistently effective. Pharmacogenomics is the relationship between your DNA and how your body responds to drugs: how they’re absorbed, how they work, and how they’re eliminated from the body. It has been heralded for some time as the white knight of drug therapy. The genome revolution was supposed to remove (or dramatically reduce) the uncertainty in medicine, telling us which drugs will work more effectively, and which we might want to avoid. And to some extent, the genome-based treatment era is already here. There are over 100 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now that include genomic information in their prescribing information. For a small number of drugs, genomic testing is warranted. Increasingly, genomic testing is more accessible, moving from the research bench directly into retail pharmacies for sale when you pick up your prescription. Given pharmacies have a less-than-stellar record of selling laboratory testing that isn’t validated or even useful, I was immediately skeptical when I saw a new story on pharmacy-based genomic testing. Titled “Your pharmacist’s secret weapon: How your DNA can help perfect your medication,” it appeared in last week’s Globe and Mail: (more…)
Pictured: Joshua Tree. Not pictured: My bleached bones. I hope.
A short post this week. Last weekend was a busy call weekend and as I type this I am heading for Palm Springs for a long weekend of hiking in the desert. If there is no entry in 14 days, look for my bleached bones somewhere in Joshua Tree.
Some observations about a recent article in the once-respected Annals of Internal Medicine, whose recent articles on acupuncture suggest their motto should be “The Annals: we have one too many ns.”
First there was, “Alexander Technique Lessons or Acupuncture Sessions for Persons With Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial,” and now “Acupuncture for Menopausal Hot Flashes: A Randomized Trial.”
Spinning yin deficiency
Why do the study? Why do any acupuncture study? Negative studies will not change practice. There are no reality-based reasons to think that acupuncture would be effective for any process. All the high quality studies show no efficacy. (more…)
Caring for a young infant, although a potentially rewarding means of producing a labor force for chores and minor home repairs, can be a trying ordeal for both new and experienced parents. The peaks and valleys of parental experience can leave a caregiver both exhilarated and agonizingly frustrated during a single hour of childcare, let alone the first few months. It is not an uncommon experience for a parent to rapidly alternate between extreme states of emotional arousal, one minute gazing down at their sleeping baby with seemingly limitless feelings of joy and love, and the next panicking at the perception that it has been too long since their baby’s last breath.
Babies, especially stupid ones, require near constant attention during the first several weeks of life, and that’s if it is going well. There is no user manual for the care of the newborn human that could possibly describe every situation and how to effectively respond to it in each individual child. A trial and error approach is always necessary to some degree, and it tends to result in a lot of sleepless nights, with many parents finding themselves more exhausted than they ever dreamed possible. So it shouldn’t be surprising that parents are a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to the marketing claims of bogus technology aimed at making their lives even the slightest bit easier. (more…)
One of the most satisfying parts of being a health professional is the opportunity to help people make better health decisions. In between the emails suggesting I’m a paid lackey of the Pharmaceutical-Industrial Complex™ for not endorsing coffee enemas, vitamin C, or homeopathy, I do receive the occasional note thanking me for my advocacy, or for writing about a subject in a way they found helpful. I’m also sent questions – too many to answer, but occasionally opening my eyes to new “concepts” in alternative medicine. And while I spent years working in a pharmacy with a huge “holistic” health section, containing products that, if they worked, would have defied one or more laws of physics or chemistry, I can still be surprised at novel alternative-to-medicine approaches to health care. Last week I was sent a questions about hydrogen peroxide – not for first aid use (where it may not be as useful as thought), but for oral consumption, as some sort of health “cure-all”. I was baffled, but the concept does exist – and the Big Pharma Overlords apparently don’t want you to know about it. There must be a rule 34 of alternative medicine – if it exists, there is an (inappropriate) alternative medicine use for it. The active ingredient in hair bleach and teeth whitening strips is no exception. (more…)
The little burrowing bacteria that bores into your pores to cause Lyme disease, EEEEEWWW!!! Darkfield 400x microscopy image of the 10-25µm long Borrelia burgdorferi spirochaete which causes Lyme disease (1993). Provided by the CDC’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL #6631) via the Wikimedia Commons
I hate those oh hell moments. I was up way too late last night, but who can pass up the opportunity to see Patti Smith playing Horses (and more) for the 40th anniversary of the album. Only 44? Behind the Eagles? No way. I would nudge it up a few more spaces. Hard to believe I was 18 when that album came out. Horses is one of the few albums that made the transition from vinyl to CD. It was a tremendous show, and at 69 Patt performs with the energy and passion of a 29 year old. And she sure can spit. I had the evening off, so food and drinks at Swine until well past midnight. First time my wife and I closed a bar. I am too old for this.
But as I was blearily drinking my a.m. coffee on a dreary PDX morning, I opened the browser to SBM and there was a post by Jann. Oh hell. That means I have a post due tomorrow and I had lost track of the time over the holidays. I thought my next post was next Friday. Oh. Hell. So unlike most posts which I write over a week, this one was done in about 4 hours. And I am sure it will show.
How do you diagnose an infection?
Not always so simple. You always start with a history and, for infectious diseases, an exposure history is paramount. People get what they are exposed to, so you want to know travel, animals, diet, water, sex etc. If you have ridden a horse to have sex in an Indian lake while drinking raw milk (not really an unusual history in my practice; people do the darndest things) you have exposure risks for a variety of infections. If you have not left the Willamette Valley it is unlikely that the cause of the illness is malaria, although you always have to consider that the infection came to the patient rather than the other way around. (more…)
Joseph Mercola, D.O., runs the website mercola.com which is full of misinformation, advocates all kinds of questionable alternative treatments including homeopathy, and discourages vaccination and other aspects of conventional medicine.
Like Dr. Oz and Andrew Weil, he is more dangerous than easily recognizable quacks in that he combines some good medical information with egregious misinformation, and readers who know he is right about the good information are likely to wrongly assume everything else he says must be equally true. He’s right about some things, but the safest course is to assume that anything on his website is false unless you can verify it as true by consulting other sources that are reliable. I tried to verify the information in his recent article on colonoscopy. I found outright errors along with fear-mongering and bias. (more…)