One of the most interesting aspects of living through the second half of the 20th century and into the first half of the 21st century is the profound change in access to information. I remember in the 1980s there was a buzz (at least among technophiles and science fiction nerds) about how computers were going to be connected in a worldwide network and it would transform the way we access information and communicate. The reality we are living in now exceeds even the most fevered predictions being made at that time.
What was difficult to anticipate was how rapid access to almost any information would affect our day-to-day lives. Now, during a discussion, if a fact is in dispute we can simply look it up and resolve the dispute. I can no longer imagine doing research in a pre-internet age, promoting science-based medicine without social media, or collaborating without the virtual-time communication of e-mail.
The internet is rapidly becoming humanity’s collective culture and body of knowledge. For that reason it is important to nurture that body of knowledge to ensure that it is complete, accurate, and fair. That goal is frustrated, however, by the fact that the World Wide Web is not simply being used for scholarly information. It is also a tool to promote ideology and commercial interests. Therefore any efforts to provide scientifically accurate and unbiased information are likely to be swamped by well-funded and highly-motivated misinformation. Search on any medical topic and you will quickly see what I mean.
I have a new term to add to the English language, ebolasmacked, a derivative of the British term gobsmacked. Ebolasmacked defines my life the last few weeks since Ebola, or at last preparations for Ebola, have taken a huge bite out of my time with many interesting twists and turns. I think this is maybe the 9th outbreak (HIV, MERS, SARS, Legionella, H1N1, Avian flu, West Nile, MRSA) of my career and it has certainly generated more hysteria relative to the risk than any to date. Many of my usual pastimes, like SBM (as this essay will no doubt demonstrate), have had to take a back seat to preparing for what should be a very unlikely, but very disruptive, event. We do not want to get caught with our hazmats down should a case of Ebola come through the door.
What makes life interesting, among other things, is the constant realization that the more you know the more there is to know. I like Richard Dawkins’ metaphor in Climbing Mount Improbable where he pictures scientific progress as a series of false summits extending into infinity. It sure seems that way. Every time I think I understand a topic, I find there is still more to learn.
My Dad told me when I graduated from medical school that half of everything I had just learned was probably not true, the only problem is that you didn’t know which half. It was partially true. There have been ideas that have been abandoned since I was an intern, the most famous being that ulcers were due to stress and diet. But a new paradigm has been the exception, not the rule.
The last thirty years have been more about refining knowledge about the complexity of disease and its treatment and, perhaps equally importantly, having a better understanding of the all slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that can make the results of a clinical trial suspect. (more…)
In August of this year, a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics was published which tackled the widespread problem of insufficient sleep in our adolescent population. They even went so far as to label insufficient sleep as “one of the most common, important, and potentially remediable health risks in children.” The statement, which gave a number of recommendations on how to address the problem, made the news rounds primarily because of the call for schools to delay start times until at least 8:30 AM.
I wrote about pediatric sleep in March for a post on the potential link between some sleep disorders in children, specifically nightmares and night terrors, and the development of psychosis. Those claims are suspect but please read that post for a review of what sleep is, why we need it, and what can go wrong with it in children of all ages. For this post, my focus will be on adolescent sleep specifically, and on the role of delaying school start times in improving a variety of health parameters.
What are the common adolescent sleep challenges?
The typical modern teenager faces a variety of challenges to consistently obtaining a full night’s sleep, which is considered by most sleep experts to be in the 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night range. This doesn’t mean that every teenager will fall apart if they only get 7 hours of sleep each night, but sub-optimal sleep can adversely affect school performance in many, and even lead to long-term health problems in some children who establish such a pattern during these pivotal years. Hold that thought for now, however.
One obvious reason for insufficient sleep in teenagers, at least it is likely obvious if you have one of your own or have ever spent more than two minutes near one, is technology. Most older children have electronic media in their rooms, if not attached to their bodies in the form of a smart phone. 24-7 access to the internet and social media is a commonly-cited impediment to sleep onset. The increasing availability and popularity of energy drinks containing absurd amounts of caffeine among adolescents likely also plays a role as both a coping strategy for daytime fatigue resulting from insufficient sleep, and as a cause of it. In fact, I think I’ve just come up with the topic for my next post.
One common feature of pseudoscience is that proponents of a specific belief tend to exaggerate its scope and implications over time. In the world of physics this can eventually lead to a so-called “theory of everything” – one unifying theory that explains wide-ranging phenomena and displaces many established theories.
In medicine this tendency to exaggerate leads in the direction of the panacea, the miracle cure for everything. Why does this happen?
There are numerous examples. Here is a video of Bruce McBurney trying to sell his Precious Metals Nano Water to investors in the Dragon’s Den. The product is nothing but distilled water with a tiny amount of silver. McBurney claims that this magic water will essentially cure everything, all bacterial and viral infections, and even cancer.
The panacea is also not the sole domain of the lone crank. Straight chiropractors essentially believe that adjusting the spine can cure everything from bed wetting to asthma, and yes, even cancer.
What factors predispose to the panacea claim? (more…)
Dr. Oz, one half of the You Doctors. And a professor. A professor.
I receive a monthly newsletter from my medical board. Among other issues discussed are the results of disciplinary actions for physicians. Occasionally a physician who has boundary issues is required to have a chaperone present when doing exams.
I was thinking that the concept of a chaperone could be more widely applicable. Consider “You Docs: Amazing acupuncture,” the latest from Drs Oz and Roizen. Both are professors at their respective institutions. Professors. To judge from the ability to read and interpret the medical literature, both should not be allowed near a journal without a chaperone to remind them about cognitive biases, logical fallacies and what constitutes a good clinical study. Looking at their recent review of acupuncture suggests they lack an understanding of all three.
They start with the argument from antiquity, which is not only wrong as a logical fallacy, it is wrong historically when they say:
acupuncture has been a go-to therapy for 5,000 years.
Off by a factor of about 500. They are unaware that acupuncture as currently practiced is relatively new, having been a form of bloodletting until recently when the modern version with steel needlesbecame popular under Mao.
However, in the early 1930s a Chinese pediatrician by the name of Cheng Dan’an (承淡安, 1899-1957) proposed that needling therapy should be resurrected because its actions could potentially be explained by neurology. He therefore repositioned the points towards nerve pathways and away from blood vessels-where they were previously used for bloodletting.
They explain the mechanism of action as stimulating
points in the body that affect chi or qi, the life energy.
without noting that chi or qi is a fantasy. No life energy has ever been measured and virtually every point on the body is an acupoint in one of the multiplicity of styles that are acupunctures. Except, as mentioned in the past, the genitals.
Foolproof cure for hiccups?
nOne of the most common questions I get in the newborn nursery, especially from first time parents, involves hiccups. Babies hiccup in the womb and most, if not all of them, will have periodic bouts of hiccups in the neonatal period. But many new parents are surprised by their baby’s first spasmodic contractions of the diaphragm. When brought up, it is often to simply acknowledge that their baby had a run of a few hiccups, usually associated with a feed, with some parents expressing surprise and others nervousness. Regardless of their assumed motivation, I always provide reassurance that hiccups are a normal experience for babies, as they are across the entire spectrum of age.
The medical term for hiccups, which I admit I only learned while researching this topic, is “singultus.” We doctors like to use our own peculiar language as much as possible in order to maintain a sense of superiority when dealing with today’s internet savvy customers, I mean patients, and their families. The rumbling of your stomach, that’s actually borborygmus. You don’t have a unibrow above your nose, that’s a synophrys. It isn’t abdominal or pelvic discomfort associated with ovulation that keeps annoying you midway through your menstrual cycle, it’s mittelschmerz. But since this is a forum meant for general public consumption, I’ll use the rather pedestrian and philistine “hiccup” for the duration of the post. (more…)
The supplement industry wants you to buy their products, and they’re not above using a little parental guilt to make you into a customer. In the photo above, the promoter is my local pharmacy, where the large window display caught my eye:
Give your Child The Tools to SUCCEED in School!
Who doesn’t want their child to succeed? And if you knew a supplement could give you or your child a learning edge, would you consider it? I’d imagine many do. Supplements have a remarkable health halo. As a pharmacist myself, I’ve noticed this when speaking with patients – few consumers identify any potential risk or downsides to supplement use. Some don’t even think of them as medicine at all. The marketing has resonated: Supplements are perceived as “safe”, “natural” and “effective”. But whether you’re giving your child a prescription medicine to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or you’re giving a supplement to “improve focus and brain function”, you’re still administering a chemical substance to a child with the intent of changing brain function. We’d probably think twice before pouring an unknown substance in our car’s gas tank, especially one claimed to boost performance. We’d probably ask for some evidence that it works, and some assurance it wouldn’t harm our vehicle. A decision to use a drug or supplement in a child deserves just as much consideration of benefits and risks. (more…)
Pictured: Cutting-edge medicine
I remain flummoxed. How do physicians and health care systems, trained in all the sciences that lie at the heart of medicine, justify the use of pseudo-medical interventions with no basis in reality? Rationalization. Making excuses:
a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable – or even admirable and superior – by plausible means.
Rationalization of the ridiculous comes in many forms. It has been said that it is a mark of a first rate intelligence to able to hold two contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Clever as it is, I suspect the opposite is true. (more…)
Medical school clinical training
A new law in Missouri will allow medical school graduates who have not completed a residency to practice in underserved areas. They will be able to call themselves “doctor” but will be licensed as “assistant physicians” with significant limitations on their practice. (The first link is to Senate Bill 716, the bill that was passed and signed by the governor. It covers several subjects, so you will need to skip to page 8 to find the portion we’re discussing.)
The Missouri State Medical Association supports the new law and helped draft the original bill. It is designed to address the state’s critical need for primary care physicians – 40% of Missouri’s population lives in underserved areas but only 25% of the state’s physicians practice there, according to a 2009 survey. Underserved areas have high poverty rates, high infant mortality, large senior populations and fewer primary care physicians per capita. (more…)