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Archive for Science and Medicine

Sky Maul

The worst part of flying is the take off and landing. Not that I am nervous about those parts of the trip, it is that I am all electronic. Once I have to turn off my electronic devices, all I am left with is my own thoughts or what is in the seat pocket in front of me. Since there is nothing to be gained from quiet introspection, I am stuck with either the in-flight magazine or SkyMall. I usually choose the latter. SkyMall, for those of you who do not fly, is a collection of catalogs bound in one volume. I have occasionally purchased products found in SkyMall and thumb through it with mild interest.

This time one product caught my eye, the Aculife home acupuncture/acupressure device. I had never noticed the ‘health’-related products in SkyMall before, usually looking for electronic gadgets that I really do not need. I was curious. How many other products besides Aculife are in the catalogue? According to the interwebs, about 100,000,000 Americans fly every year and well over half a billion people world wide. A lot of people can potentially look at SkyMall, including the occasional skeptic.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Science and Medicine

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Science-based medicine and improving patient safety and quality of care

The last couple of weeks, I feel as though I may have been slumming a bit. After all, comparatively speaking it’s not that difficult to take on claims that homeopathy benefits fibromyalgia or Oprah Winfrey promoting faith healing quackery. Don’t get me wrong. Taking on such topics is important (otherwise I wouldn’t do it). For one thing, some quackery is so harmful and egregiously anti-science that it needs to be discussed. For another thing, they serve as examples of how even the most obvious quackery can seem plausible. All it takes are the cognitive quirks to which all humans are prone plus a bit of ignorance about what constitutes good scientific evidence to support the efficacy of a given therapy for a given condition.

So let’s move on to something a little more challenging.

Of all the attacks on science-based medicine (SBM), one of the favorite attacks made by its opponents is the claim that SBM is dangerous, that it kills or harms far more people than it helps. An excellent example of this occurred when quackery promoter Joseph Mercola teamed up with fellow quackery promoter Gary Null to write a widely cited article entitled Death by Medicine. Using the famous Institute of Medicine article that estimated deaths from medical errors to be on the order of 50,000 to 100,000 per year, Mercola and Null wove a scary story meant to imply that conventional medicine does far more harm than good. Of course, as our very own Harriet Hall pointed out, they concentrated solely on the harm, which makes it difficult to determine whether the harms truly outweigh the benefits. As Peter Lipson puts it, such arguments are intentionally designed to take our fears and exaggerate them out of all perspective. The idea behind the fallacious arguments used by the likes of Mercola and Null is that, because “conventional” medicine has problems and needs to improve its safety record, the quackery they promote must be a viable alternative to SBM. Yes, that is basically what their arguments boil down to.

The fallacious manner in which advocates for quackery such as Joe Mercola, Mike Adams, and Gary Null use and abuse any shortcoming of SBM that they can find (and, when they can’t find any, make some up) notwithstanding, there is a problem in SBM. Indeed, over the last 10 years or so since the IOM report, reducing the toll due to medical errors has — finally — become an incredibly important issue in medicine. Indeed, I myself have become involved in a state-wide quality improvement initiative in breast cancer as our site’s project director. As a result, I’m being forced to learn more about the nitty-gritty of quality improvement than I had ever thought I would. Combine this with a study published just before the Thanksgiving holiday in the New England Journal of Medicine, and I’m learning that improving care is incredibly difficult. The issues involved are many and tend to involve systems rather than individuals, which is why the solutions often bump up against the individualistic culture to which physicians belong. Moreover, such efforts, like comparative effectiveness research (CER), tend to earn less prestige than scientific research because, like CER, quality improvement initiatives do not in general look for new information and scientific understanding but rather at how we apply what we already know.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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What’s with the new cough and cold products?

One of my earliest lessons as a pharmacist working in the “real world” was that customers didn’t always act the way I expected. Parents of sick children frequently fell into this category — and the typical vignette went like this for me:

  1. Parent has determined that their child is sick, and needs some sort of over-the-counter medicine.
  2. Parent asks pharmacist for advice selecting a product from the dozens on the shelves.
  3. Pharmacist uses the opportunity to provide science-based advice, and assures parent that no drug therapy is necessary.
  4. Parent directly questions the validity of this advice, and may ask about the merits of a specific product they have already identified.
  5. Pharmacist explains efficacy and risk of the product, and provides general non-drug symptom management suggestions.
  6. Parent thanks pharmacist, selects product despite advice, and walks to the front of the store to pay.

In many ways, a pharmacy purchase mirrors the patient-physician interaction that ends with a prescription being written — it’s what feels like the logical end to the consultation, and without it, feels incomplete. It’s something that I’m observing more and more frequently when advising parents about cough and cold products for children.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Legal, Science and Medicine

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part I: Does EBM Undervalue Basic Science and Overvalue RCTs?

During the most recent kerfuffle about whether or not Evidence-Based Medicine can legitimately claim to be science-based medicine, it became clear to me that a whole, new round of discussion and documentation is necessary. This is frustrating because I’ve already done it several times, most recently less than a year ago. Moreover, I’ve provided a table of links to the whole series at the bottom of each post*…Never mind, here goes, and I hope this will be the last time it is necessary because I’ll try to make this the “go to” series of posts for any future such confusions.

The points made in this series, most of which link to posts in which I originally made them, are in response to arguments from statistician Steve Simon, whose essay, Is there something better than Evidence Based Medicine out there?, was the topic of Dr. Gorski’s rebuttal on Monday of this week, and also from several of the comments following that rebuttal. Mr. Simon has since revised his original essay to an extent, which I’ll take into account. I’ll frame this as a series of assertions by those who doubt that EBM is deficient in the ways that we at SBM have argued, followed in each case by my response.

First, a disclaimer: I don’t mean to gang up on Mr. Simon personally; others hold opinions similar to his, but his essay just happens to be a convenient starting point for this discussion. FWIW, prior to this week I perused a bit of his blog, after having read one of his comments here, and found it to be well written and informative.

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Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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CAM and the Law Part 2: Licensure and Scope of Practice Laws

This post is intended to illustrate a bit about how medicine, including alternative medicine, is defined and limited legally by state licensure. This is, of course, an enormous topic, especially given the variety of laws and regulations among the 50 states and District of Columbia, and the many, often mutually inconsistent, court decisions interpreting them. A comprehensive survey would resemble Gibbon’s history of Rome and would likely be out-of-date the moment it was finished. My more modest goal here is to highlight a few of the ways in which licensure and scope of practice laws intersect the practice of CAM and give a few representative examples. 

The Rise of Medical Licensure

In the 19th century, a bewildering variety of different approaches to maintaining health and treating disease competed for the trust, and dollars, of prospective patients (or their owners, in the case of animal patients). Caveat emptor was the rule in an unregulated medical marketplace. Mainstream medicine was a competitor in this marketplace, though it was hardly science-based to any great extent compared to conventional medical practices today. Homeopathy was another pretty big player, along with osteopathy and numerous other more or less organized schools, as well as many individual snake oil salesmen, faith healers, local providers of folk remedies, and so on.1,2

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Posted in: Legal, Science and Medicine

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CAM and the Law, Part 1: Introduction to the issues

When I write or talk about the scientific evidence against particular alternative medical approaches, I am frequently asked the question, “So, if it doesn’t work, why is it legal?” Believers in CAM ask this to show that there must be something to what they are promoting or, presumably, the government wouldn’t let them sell it. And skeptics raise the question often out of sheer incredulity that anyone would be allowed to make money selling a medical therapy that doesn’t work. It turns out that the answer to this question is a complex, multilayered story involving science, history, politics, religion, and culture. 

While we science types tend to be primarily interested in what is true and what isn’t, that is a sometimes surprisingly minor factor in the process of constructing laws and regulations concerning medicine. What I hope to do in this series of essays is look at some of the major themes involved in the regulation of medical practice, particularly as they relate to alternative medicine. I will begin by touching on some of the general philosophical and legal issues that have defined the debate among the politicians and lawyers responsible for shaping the legal environment in which medicine is practiced. The I will review some of the specific domains within this environment, including: medical licensure and scope-of-practice laws; malpractice law; FDA regulation of drugs, homeopathic remedies, and dietary supplements; truth-in-advertising law; and anti-trust law.

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Posted in: Legal, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Answering a criticism of science-based medicine

Attacks on science-based medicine (SBM) come in many forms. There are the loony forms that we see daily from the anti-vaccine movement, quackery promoters like Mike Adams and Joe Mercola, those who engage in “quackademic medicine,” and postmodernists who view science as “just another narrative,” as valid as any other or even view science- and evidence-based medicine as “microfascism.” Sometimes, these complaints come from self-proclaimed champions of evidence-based medicine (EBM) who, their self-characterization otherwise, show signs of having a bit of a soft spot for the ol’ woo. Then sometimes there are thoughtful, serious criticisms of some of the assumptions that underlie SBM.

The criticism I am about to address tries to be one of these but ultimately fails because it attacks a straw man version of SBM.

True, the criticism of SBM I’m about to address does come from someone named Steve Simon, who vocally supports EBM but doesn’t like the the criticism of EBM implicit in the very creation of the concept of SBM. Simon has even written a very good deconstruction of postmodern attacks on evidence-based medicine (EBM) himself, as well as quite a few other good discussions of medicine and statistics. Unfortunately, in his criticism, Simon appears to have completely missed the point about the difference between SBM and EBM. As a result, his criticisms of SBM wind up being mostly the application of a flamethrower to a Burning Man-sized straw man representing what he thinks SBM to be. It makes for a fun fireworks show but is ultimately misdirected, a lot of heat but little light. For a bit of background, Simon’s post first piqued my curiosity because of its title, Is there something better than Evidence Based Medicine out there? The other reason that it caught my attention was the extreme naiveté revealed in the arguments used. In fact, Simon’s naiveté reminds me very much of my very own naiveté about three years ago.

Here’s the point where I tell you a secret about the very creation of this blog. Shortly after Steve Novella invited me to join, the founding members of SBM engaged in several e-mail frank and free-wheeling exchanges about what the blog should be like, what topics we wanted to cover, and what our philosophy should be. One of these exchanges was about the very nature of SBM and how it is distinguished from EBM, the latter of which I viewed as the best way to practice medicine. During that exchange, I made arguments that, in retrospect, were eerily similar to the ones by Simon that I’m about to address right now. Oh, how epic these arguments were! In retrospect, I can but shake my head at my own extreme naiveté, which I now see mirrored in Simon’s criticism of SBM. Yes, I was converted, so to speak (if you’ll forgive the religious terminology), which is why I see in Simon’s article a lot of my former self, at least in terms of how I used to view evidence in medicine.

The main gist of Simon’s complaint comes right at the beginning of his article:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Why science reporters should do their homework

One of the most significant medical advancements of the last few decades has been the use of cholesterol-lowering medications called statins.  These drugs, when used properly, have been shown over and over to lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death.  But like all drugs, they have many effects, both those we like (preventing heart attacks) and those we don’t (in this case, rare liver and muscle problems); the latter we call “side-effects”.  Studies done on drugs before they hit the market can identify common side-effects, but it’s not until many more people are exposed for a long period of time that rare side-effects show up.

A recent Scientific American article wondered if one of these rare side-effects could be memory problems.  At first glance, the idea seems pretty improbable, but the SI article takes some sketchy anecdotes and runs with the idea, managing to cobble together an interesting hypothesis: (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Fatigued by a Fake Disease

One of the realities of being a pharmacist is that we’re easily accessible. There’s no appointment necessary for consultation and advice at the pharmacy counter. Questions range from “Does this look infected?” (Yes) to “What should I do about this chest pain?” to more routine questions about conditions that can easily be self-treated. Part of the pharmacist’s role is triage — advising on conditions that can be self-managed, and making medical referrals when warranted. Among the most common questions I receive are related to stress and fatigue. Energy levels are are down, and patients want advice, and solutions. Some want a “quick fix,” believing that the right combination of B-vitamins are all that stand between them and unlimited energy. Others may ask if prescription drugs or caffeine tablets could help. Evaluating vague symptoms is a challenge. Many of us have busy lifestyles, and don’t get the sleep and exercise we need. We may compromise our diets in the interest of time and convenience. With some simple questions I might make a few basic lifestyle recommendations, talk about the evidence supporting supplements, and suggest physician follow-up if symptoms persist. Fatigue and stress may be part of life, but they’re also symptoms of serious medical conditions. But they can be hard to treat because they’re non-specific and may not be easily distinguishable from the fatigue of, well, life.

This same vague collection of symptoms is called something entirely different in the alternative health world. It’s branded “adrenal fatigue,” an invented condition that’s widely embraced as real among alternative health providers. There’s no evidence that adrenal fatigue actually exists. The public education arm of the Endocrine Society, representing 14,000 endocrinologists, recently issued the following advisory:

“Adrenal fatigue” is not a real medical condition. There are no scientific facts to support the theory that long-term mental, emotional, or physical stress drains the adrenal glands and causes many common symptoms.

Unequivocal words. But facts about adrenal fatigue neatly illustrate why a science-based approach is a consumer’s best protection against being diagnosed with a fake disease. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Blog Discussion with an SBM Critic

Over the last couple of days I have been engaged at NeuroLogica in a discussion with a fellow blogger, Marya Zilberberg who blogs at Healthcare, etc. Since the topic of discussion is science-based medicine I thought it appropriate to reproduce my two posts here, which contain links to her posts.

A Post-Modernist Response to Science-Based Medicine

I receive frequent commentary on my public writing, which is great. The feature that most distinguishes blogs is that they are conversations. So I am glad to see that science-based medicine (a term I coined) is getting targeted for criticism in other blogs. One blogger, Marya Zilberberg at Healthcare, etc., has written a series of posts responding to what she thinks is our position at Science-based medicine. What she has done, however, is make many of the logical fallacies typically committed in defense of unscientific medical modalities and framed them as one giant straw man.

She is partly responding to this article of mine on SBM (What’s the harm) in which I make the point that medicine is a risk vs benefit game. Ethical responsible medical practice involves interventions where there is at least the probability of doing more benefit than harm with proper informed consent, so the patient knows what those chances are. Using scientifically dubious treatments, where there is little or no chance of benefit, especially when they are overhyped, is therefore unethical. And further, the “harm” side of the equation needs to include all forms of harm, not just direct physical harm.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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