The Supreme Court of the United States made a ruling the other day that has profound implications for the health of millions of children. Since October 12, 2010, The Court has been quietly deliberating the case of Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, inc. The case centers on Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz’s allegation that their 18 year old daughter, Hannah, was irreversibly injured by a DTP vaccine she received when she was 6 months old. What is important about this case is not the allegation itself (I will discuss its merits, or lack thereof, in a moment), but the ramifications the ruling has for the future of childhood immunization in this country. The Supreme Court’s ruling against the Bruesewitz’s and in favor of the U.S. vaccination program was the right one, and safeguards our children from the irrationality of the anti-vaccine movement. Some important background is necessary here to understand why this is so.
Prior to the development of effective vaccines, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis were common diseases, terrifyingly familiar to all parents. Death records from Massachusetts during the latter half of the 1800’s indicate that diphtheria caused 3-10% of all deaths. In the first part of the 20th century, these dreaded organisms still caused illness in hundreds of thousands of people each year in the United States. These are devastating diseases which, if not resulting in death, often produced severe and permanent damage to those afflicted. In the 1920’s, vaccines against each of these scourges were finally developed, and in the mid 1940’s the combined DTP vaccine was introduced. The vaccines were so effective that cases of these deadly infections were practically eliminated. Today, few parents know the terror once routinely wrought by these pathogens.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is one of America’s most influential doctors. Just ask him. He has a TV show and everything. And in the past, much of his advice had been practical and mundane, the same advice you might hear from your own (perhaps less charismatic) physician. But lately, he’s been giving out frankly bizarre medical opinions. Not all of Oz’s recommendations are over-the-top strange, but even some of his less-bizarre stuff is hyperbolic to the point of being—in my opinion—deceptive. Let’s explore one example close to my heart, diabetes. As an internist, one of my most important tasks is the prevention and treatment of diabetes. I know something about it. As a heart surgeon, Dr. Oz deals with one of the most serious complications of diabetes, coronary heard disease, so he must know a bit about it as well.
So I was a bit surprised to learn from his website that I’ve been going after diabetes the wrong way. Unknown to me is the “prevention powerhouse” of coffee and vinegar. He recommends heavy consumption of these miracle foods to prevent diabetes and to help the liver and cholesterol, whatever that means. Reading this, two questions come to mind (a few more, really, but two that we will focus on): is this plausible, and is this true?
Following my recent critique here of the book Disconnect by Devra Davis, about the purported dangers of cell phones to health, David Gorski asked me to comment on a recently published “review article” on the same subject. The article is entitled “Risk of Brain Tumors from Wireless Phone Use” by Dubey et al  published in the J. Comput Assist Tomography. At the outset, the same question occurred to both of us: what is a “review article” about cell phones and brain tumors doing in a highly technical journal dedicated to CT scans and CT imaging? While we are both still guessing about the answer to this question, we agreed that the article itself is a hodge-podge of irrational analysis.
As you might surmise, Dubey and his Indian co-authors come to the conclusion that “that the current standard of exposure to microwave during mobile phone use is not safe for long-term exposure and needs to be revised.” But within the conclusion there is also the following: “There is no credible evidence from the Environmental Health and Safety Office (I presume in India) about the cause of cancer or brain tumors with the use of cell phones. It is illogical to believe that evidence of unusual brain tumors is only because of hundred’s of millions of people using cell phones worldwide.” What?! These are opposite and contradictory statements. The main body of the article includes a lot more instances of such inconsistency.
Why haven’t we cured cancer yet?
If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure cancer?
If we can harness the atom, why can’t we cure cancer?
How many times have you heard these questions, or variants thereof? How many times have you asked this question yourself? Sometimes, I even ask this question myself. Saturday was the two year anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law from a particularly nasty form of breast cancer, and, even though I am a breast cancer surgeon, I still wonder why there was nothing in the armamentarium of science-based medicine that could save her from a several month decline followed by an unpleasant death. That’s why, to me at least, the timing of the publication of a study examining the genome of prostate cancer that was published in Nature and summarized in this Science Daily news story was particularly apt. Performed as part of the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Genome Project, the study undertook complete genome sequencing of seven advanced and aggressive prostate cancers. The results, as ERV put it, revealed what can be describe as a “train wreck.”
Personally, I’d describe it as looking as though someone threw a miniature grenade into the nucleus of a prostate epithelial cell. You’ll see what I mean shortly.
Of course, although that image does give you an idea of the chromosomal chaos in the heart of prostate cancer cells, it is inaccurate in that it implies a sudden explosion, after which the damage is done, and if there’s one thing we know about cancer it’s that in most cases it takes many years for a normal cell to progress to a cancer cell fully capable of metastasizing and killing its host. I’ve written in detail about the complexity of cancer before, of course, and have even pointed out before that when President Nixon launched the “war on cancer” 40 years ago scientists had no idea how difficult it would be. Indeed, before I discuss the current study, it’s probably useful to reiterate a bit why, in order to put the study in context.
NB: This is a partial posting; I was up all night ‘on-call’ and too tired to continue. I’ll post the rest of the essay later…
This is the fourth and final part of a series-within-a-series* inspired by statistician Steve Simon. Professor Simon had challenged the view, held by several bloggers here at SBM, that Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) has been mostly inadequate to the task of reaching definitive conclusions about highly implausible medical claims. In Part I, I reiterated a fundamental problem with EBM, reflected in its Levels of Evidence scheme, that although it correctly recognizes basic science and other pre-clinical evidence as insufficient bases for introducing novel treatments into practice, it fails to acknowledge that they are necessary bases. I explained the difference between “plausibility” and “knowing the mechanism.”
I showed, with several examples, that in the EBM lexicon the word “evidence” refers almost exclusively to the results of clinical trials: thus, when faced with equivocal or no clinical trials of some highly implausible claim, EBM practitioners typically declare that there is “not enough evidence” to either accept or reject the claim, and call for more trials—although in many cases there is abundant evidence, other than clinical trials, that conclusively refutes the claim. I rejected Prof. Simon’s assertion that we at SBM want to “give (EBM) a new label,” making the point that we only want it to live up to its current label by considering all the evidence. I doubted Prof. Simon’s contention that “people within EBM (are) working both formally and informally to replace the rigid hierarchy with something that places each research study in context.”
In Part II I responded to the widely held assertion, also held by Prof. Simon, that there is “societal value in testing (highly implausible) therapies that are in wide use.” I made it clear that I don’t oppose simple tests of basic claims, such as the Emily Rosa experiment, but I noted that EBM reviewers, including those employed by the Cochrane Collaboration, typically ignore such tests. I wrote that I oppose large efficacy trials and public funding of such trials. I argued that the popularity gambit has resulted in human subjects being exposed to dangerous and unethical trials, and I quoted language from ethics treatises specifically contradicting the assertion that popularity justifies such trials. Finally, I showed that the alleged popularity of most “CAM” methods—as irrelevant as it may be to the question of human studies ethics—has been greatly exaggerated.
A number of news outlets (e.g. Bloomberg Business Week, MSN.Com, US News, etc) have recently reported that use of complementary and alternative therapies (CAT) is widespread in hospice care facilities. This is based on a report from the Centers for Disease Control, Complementary and Alternative Therapies in Hospice: The National Home and Hospice Care Survey, Untied States, 2007. According to most news reports, about 42% of hospice care providers offer some kind of CAT.
I was initially inclined to find this a little worrisome. In my own field of veterinary medicine, advocates of alternative therapies are prominent among the organizers of the nascent hospice care movement. And while I am strongly supportive of better and more available veterinary hospice care, the involvement of CAM advocates raises the concern that animals at the end of their life might receive ineffective palliative care, or be denied the benefits of conventional treatments by some CAM providers, who often characterize “allopathic” treatments as “unnatural” and harmful.
During my recent stint covering the Neuro ICU I noticed for the first time a checklist posted above each patient bed. The checklist covered the steps to undergo whenever performing an invasive procedure on the patient. I was glad to see that the checklist phenomenon had penetrated my hospital, although the implementation of safety checklists is far from complete.
A recent study published in the BMJ offers support for the efficacy of using checklists to reduce complications and improve patient outcomes. This is a retrospective study looking at mortality and length of stay in Michigan area ICUs, comparing those that had implemented the Michigan Keystone ICU project (including a safety checklist for the placement of central lines) with local ICUs that had not implemented the project. They found a 10% decrease in overall mortality, but the results were not significant for length of stay. Because this was a retrospective study it was not designed to prove cause and effect, but it is highly suggestive of the efficacy of implementing such checklists.
The checklist trend represents a culture change within medicine – and a good one. This change received its greatest boost with the publication of The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande. He presents a compelling case for the need and efficacy of using checklists in order to minimize error.
For those who are new to the blog, I am nobody from nowhere. I am a clinician, taking care of patients with infectious diseases at several hospitals in the Portland area. I am not part of an academic center (although we are affiliated with OHSU and have a medicine residency program). I have not done any research since I was a fellow, 20 years ago. I was an excellent example of the Peter Principal; there was no bench experiment that I could not screw up.
My principal weapon in patient care is the medical literature, accessed throughout the day thanks to Google and PubMed. The medical literature is enormous. There are more than 21,000,000 articles referenced on Pubmed, over a million if the search term ‘infection’ is used, with 45,000 last year.
I probably read as much of the ID literature as any specialist. Preparing for my Puscast podcast, I skim several hundred titles every two weeks, usually select around 80 references of interest and read most of them with varying degrees of depth. Yet I am still sipping at a fire hose of information
The old definition of a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they everything about nothing. I often feel I know less and less about more and more until someday I will know nothing about everything. Yet I am considered knowledgeable by the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), who wasted huge amounts of my time, a serious chunk of my cash, and who have declared, after years of testing, that I am recertified in my specialty. I am still Board Certified, but the nearly pointless exercise has left me certified bored. But I can rant for hours on Bored Certification and how out of touch with the practice of medicine the ABIM is.
A November letter to the editor in American Family Physician chastises that publication for misusing the term “secondary prevention,” even using it in the title of an article that was actually about tertiary prevention.
I am guilty of the same sin. I had been influenced by simplistic explanations that distinguished only two kinds of prevention: primary and secondary. I thought primary prevention was for those who didn’t yet have a disease, and secondary prevention was for those who already had the disease, to prevent recurrence or exacerbation. For example, vaccinations would be primary prevention and treatment of risk factors to prevent a second myocardial infarct would be secondary prevention.
No, there are three kinds of prevention: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention aims to prevent disease from developing in the first place. Secondary prevention aims to detect and treat disease that has not yet become symptomatic. Tertiary prevention is directed at those who already have symptomatic disease, in an attempt to prevent further deterioration, recurrent symptoms and subsequent events. (more…)
This is the third post in this series*; please see Part II for a review. Part II offered several arguments against the assertion that it is a good idea to perform efficacy trials of medical claims that have been refuted by basic science or by other, pre-trial evidence. This post will add to those arguments, continuing to identify the inadequacies of the tools of Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) as applied to such claims.
Prof. Simon Replies
Prior to the posting of Part II, statistician Steve Simon, whose views had been the impetus for this series, posted another article on his blog, responding to Part I of this series. He agreed with some of what both Dr. Gorski and I had written:
The blog post by Dr. Atwood points out a critical distinction between “biologically implausible” and “no known mechanism of action” and I must concede this point. There are certain therapies in CAM that take the claim of biological plausibility to an extreme. It’s not as if those therapies are just implausible. It is that those therapies must posit a mechanism that “would necessarily violate scientific principles that rest on far more solid ground than any number of equivocal, bias-and-error-prone clinical trials could hope to overturn.” Examples of such therapies are homeopathy, energy medicine, chiropractic subluxations, craniosacral rhythms, and coffee enemas.
The Science Based Medicine site would argue that randomized trials for these therapies are never justified. And it bothers Dr. Atwood when a systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration states that no conclusions can be drawn about homeopathy as a treatment for asthma because of a lack of evidence from well conducted clinical trials. There’s plenty of evidence from basic physics and chemistry that can allow you to draw strong conclusions about whether homeopathy is an effective treatment for asthma. So the Cochrane Collaboration is ignoring this evidence, and worse still, is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) calling for more research in this area.
On the other hand:
There are a host of issues worth discussing here, but let me limit myself for now to one very basic issue. Is any research justified for a therapy like homeopathy when basic physics and chemistry will provide more than enough evidence by itself to suggest that such research is futile(?) Worse still, the randomized trial is subject to numerous biases that can lead to erroneous conclusions.
I disagree for a variety of reasons.