Archive for Science and the Media

NPR and the False Choice of Alternative Medicine

NPR National Public Radio logo

A recent segment on NPR is an excellent representation of some of the mischief that promotion of unscientific medical treatments can create. The title is a good summary of the problem: “To Curb Pain Without Opioids, Oregon Looks To Alternative Treatments.

The entire segment is premised around a false dichotomy, between excess use of opioids and unproven alternative treatments. It is clear that the reporters didn’t even speak to a pain specialist who relies upon science-based treatments, or if they did the specialist was completely ignored because a SBM approach did not fit into the narrative of the report.

Non-opioid options for pain control

The problem addressed by the segment is real – the current technology of pain control is limited. I don’t want to sell pain management short, we have an array of powerful and effective treatments. There are limitations, however, and many patients are inadequately treated.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Science and the Media

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“Precision medicine”: Hope, hype, or both?

The cost to sequence a whole genome has been plummeting impressively since 2007.

The cost to sequence a whole genome has been plummeting impressively since 2007.

I am fortunate to have become a physician in a time of great scientific progress. Back when I was in college and medical school, the thought that we would one day be able to sequence the human genome (and now sequence hundreds of cancer genomes), to measure the expression of every gene in the genome simultaneously on a single “gene chip,” and to assess the relative abundance of every RNA transcript, coding and noncoding (such as microRNAs) simultaneously through next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques was considered, if not science fiction, so far off in the future as to be unlikely to impact medicine in my career. Yet here I am, mid-career, and all of these are a reality. The cost of rapidly sequencing a genome has plummeted. Basically, the first human genome cost nearly $3 billion to sequence, while recent developments in sequencing technology have brought that cost down to the point where the “$1,000 genome” is within sight, if not already here, as illustrated in the graph above published by the National Human Genome Research Institute. Whether the “$1,000 genome” is truly here or not, the price is down to a few thousand dollars. Compare that to the cost of, for instance, the OncoType DX 21-gene assay for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, which costs nearly $4,000 and is paid for by insurance because its results can spare many women from even more expensive chemotherapy.

So, ready or not, genomic medicine is here, whether we know enough or not to interpret the results in individual patients and use it to benefit them, so much so that President Obama announced a $215 million plan for research in genomic mapping and precision medicine known as the Precision Medicine Initiative. Meanwhile, the deeply flawed yet popular 21st Century Cures bill, which passed the House of Representatives, bets heavily on genomic research and precision medicine. As I mentioned when I discussed the bill, it’s not so much the genomic medicine funding that is the major flaw in the bill but rather its underlying assumption that encouraging the FDA to decrease the burden of evidence to approve new drugs and devices will magically lead to an explosion in “21st century cures,” the same old antiregulatory wine in a slightly new bottle. Be that as it may, one way or the other, the federal government is poised to spend lots of money on precision medicine.

Because I’m a cancer doctor, and, if there’s one area in medicine in which precision medicine is being hyped the hardest, it’s hard for me not to think that the sea change that is going on in medicine really hit the national consciousness four years ago. That was when Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs revealed that after his cancer had recurred as metastatic disease in 2010. Jobs had consulted with research teams at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and the Broad Institute to have the genome of his cancer and normal tissue sequenced, one of the first twenty people in the world to have this information. At the time (2010-2011), each genome sequence cost $100,000, which Jobs could easily afford. Scientists and oncologists looked at this information and used it to choose various targeted therapies for Jobs throughout the remainder of his life, and Jobs met with all his doctors and researchers from the three institutions working on the DNA from his cancer at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto to discuss the genetic signatures found in Jobs’ cancer and how best to target them. Jobs’ case, as we now know, was a failure. However much Jobs’ team tried to stay one step ahead of his cancer, the cancer caught up and passed whatever they could do. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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How should we treat DCIS?

How should we treat DCIS?

I’ve written more times than I can remember about the phenomenon of overdiagnosis and the phenomenon that is linked at the hip with it, overtreatment. Overdiagnosis is a problem that arises when large populations of asymptomatic, apparently healthy people are screened for a disease or a condition, the idea being that catching the disease at an earlier stage in its progression will allow for more successful treatment. Two prominent examples include—of course—screening for breast cancer with mammography and screening for prostate cancer with prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing, and I’ve written about the problem of overdiagnosis with each of them on many occasions. Basically, overdiagnosis occurs when the screening test picks up what we call “preclinical” disease (i.e., disease that hasn’t become symptomatic) that, if left untreated, would never become symptomatic or endanger the health or life of the patient). Although intuitively, it seems to the lay public (and, truth be told, most doctors) that detecting cancer earlier must be inherently better, it turns out that it’s way more complicated than you think. There is a price to be paid for early diagnosis in the form of overtreatment of disease that doesn’t need treatment and for disease that is destined to threaten the life of the patient earlier treatment doesn’t always result in better outcomes. Also, whenever you screen for a condition in asymptomatic people, you will always—always—find much more of it, and the significance of those added diagnoses is not always clear, as a new study in JAMA Oncology shows.

DCIS and mammography: Some background

Before I get to the meat of the study, from my perspective, nowhere is the problem of overdiagnosis and overtreatment in cancer screening as pronounced than in the condition known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS is commonly referred to as “stage 0″ breast cancer and is characterized by milk duct cells that appear malignant but remain confined to the milk ducts. In other words, they haven’t invaded the tissue surrounding the ducts. In general, DCIS is treated similarly to breast cancer, with surgical excision, either by mastectomy or breast-conserving surgery, followed by radiation therapy if breast conserving surgery is used. Then, depending on its hormone receptor status, adjuvant treatment consists of blocking estrogen for five years. The rationale for this treatment is the view of DCIS as being a precursor to fully invasive breast cancer and that treating the DCIS will prevent the development of breast cancer. Over the last couple of decades, however, it has become clear that not all DCIS is created equal. Much of it will never progress to breast cancer in the lifetime of the woman (particularly if the woman is older, which means less time for fully malignant transformation to occur). Evidence suggesting this includes studies showing an increase in DCIS incidence by 16-fold since the 1970s, when mammography started to be introduced on a large scale, with little change in the incidence of invasive cancer. Today, 20-25% of mammography-detected breast cancer diagnoses are DCIS; forty years ago, DCIS was an uncommon diagnosis, except associated with an invasive cancer.

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Medical Theater

Me and my wife, in a very small number of years from now.  YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!

Me and my wife, in a very small number of years from now. YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

This summer my wife and I have been transitioning somewhere between stage 5 and 6. My eldest left Tuesday for law school in Boston and my youngest leaves for college next week in LA. So we will soon be empty nesters. As part of the change we have been making a point of going out, to dinners, bars, concerts and theater. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The evolving story of the harms of anti-inflammatory drugs

Advil (ibuprofen)

Owing to summer vacation, today’s post updates a 2011 post and a 2013 post with some new information.

Anti-inflammatory drugs are among the most well-loved products in the modern medicine cabinet. They can provide good pain control, reduce inflammation, and eliminate fever. We give non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in infancy, continuing through childhood and then adulthood for the aches and pains of modern living. It’s the later stages of life where NSAIDs are used most frequently, usually in the treatment of joint disease like osteoarthritis, which eventually affects pretty much everyone. Over 17 million Americans use NSAIDs on a daily basis, and this number will grow as the population ages. While they’re widely used, they also have a long list of side effects. Not only can they cause stomach ulcers and bleeding by damaging the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular risks are also significant.

It was the arrival (and withdrawal) of the drugs Bextra (valdecoxib) and Vioxx (rofecoxib) that led to a much better understanding of the potential for these drugs to increase the risks of heart attacks and strokes. And it’s now well-documented that these effects are not limited to the “COX-2″ drugs – almost all NSAIDs, including the old standbys we have used for years, raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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NCCIH and the true evolution of integrative medicine

NCCIH and the true evolution of integrative medicine

There can be no doubt that, when it comes to medicine, The Atlantic has an enormous blind spot. Under the guise of being seemingly “skeptical,” the magazine has, over the last few years, published some truly atrocious articles about medicine. I first noticed this during the H1N1 pandemic, when The Atlantic published an article lionizing flu vaccine “skeptic” Tom Jefferson, who, unfortunately, happens to be head of the Vaccines Field at the Cochrane Collaboration, entitled “Does the Vaccine Matter?” It was so bad that Mark Crislip did a paragraph-by-paragraph fisking of the article, while Revere also explained just where the article went so very, very wrong. Over at a blog known to many here, the question was asked whether The Atlantic (among other things) matters. It didn’t take The Atlantic long to cement its lack of judgment over medical stories by publishing, for example, a misguided defense of chelation therapy, a rather poor article by Megan McArdle on the relationship between health insurance status and mortality, and an article in which John Ioannidis’ work was represented as meaning we can’t believe anything in science-based medicine. Topping it all off was the most notorious article of all, the most blatant apologetics for alternative medicine in general and quackademic medicine in particular that Steve Novella or I have seen in a long time. The article was even entitled “The Triumph of New Age Medicine.”

Now The Atlantic has published an article that is, in essence, The Triumph of New Age Medicine, Part Deux. In this case, the article is by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, a senior editor at The Atlantic, and entitled “The Evolution of Alternative Medicine.” It is, in essence, pure propaganda for the paired phenomena of “integrative” medicine and quackademic medicine, without which integrative medicine would likely not exist. The central message? It’s the same central (and false) message that advocates of quackademic medicine have been promoting for at least 25 years: “Hey, this stuff isn’t quackery any more! We’re scientific, ma-an!” You can even tell that’s going to be the central message from the tag line under the title:

When it comes to treating pain and chronic disease, many doctors are turning to treatments like acupuncture and meditation—but using them as part of a larger, integrative approach to health.


Posted in: Acupuncture, History, Medical Academia, Naturopathy, Science and the Media

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Florida strikes out against Brian Clement

CBC interview with Brian Clement.

CBC interview with Brian Clement.

Brian Clement is a charlatan. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the State of Florida. I made two (which turned into three) attempts to get the state to take action against Clement or the Hippocrates Health Institute, where he serves with his wife Anna Maria Gahns-Clement as co-director. All of them failed. Brian Clement slithered through the cracks in Florida law each time.

Before we get into the details of Florida’s failure to act, a bit of history (and there is plenty of it) is in order.

In recent months, Clement’s sordid cancer quackery has been well-documented in the media as well as in the science “blogosphere”. (I’ve listed what I hope is a — but almost certainly isn’t — complete blog archive at the end of this post. Many of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] and other news reports are linked in these posts.) Most of the coverage has centered on two Canadian girls suffering from lymphoblastic leukemia whose parents pulled them from conventional cancer therapies, which gave them an excellent chance of survival, in favor of treatment at the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI), a sprawling spa in West Palm Beach, Florida, licensed as a massage establishment by the state.

Clement gave a talk in Canada, in 2014, claiming “we’ve had more people reverse cancer than any institute in the history of health care.” (“We” is the operative word here, because it later served as Clement’s ticket to avoid prosecution by the Florida Board of Medicine, as you shall soon find out.) The girls’ families were impressed.

Sadly, one of the girls, Makayla Sault, died earlier this year. The other, identified only as “JJ” in the media because of a publication ban, has returned to conventional treatment. However, her mother apparently remains under the influence of Clement: JJ is restricted to a raw foods diet and is still being followed, if that is the right word, by HHI. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Legal, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Bill Maher: Still an antivaccine crank after all these years

Bill Maher (right) pays rapt attention to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) as he gives pointers about how to be a crankier antivaccine crank.

Bill Maher (right) pays rapt attention to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) as he gives pointers about how to be a crankier antivaccine crank.

It is with reluctance that I decided to write about this topic again, given how many times I’ve written about it over the last decade, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog and given how little his fans seems to care when I do. I’m referring to the antivaccine stylings of comedian and political pundit Bill Maher, something I’ve been writing about for over a decade now. Indeed, a little more than five years ago, I stirred up a bit of trouble in the skeptical community through some particularly harsh criticisms of Bill Maher, in particular of the Atheist Alliance International’s (AAI) decision to award Maher the Richard Dawkins Award. More than once, I’ve likened giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health, given that, at least when it comes to medicine, Maher is anti-science to the core. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of both Dawkins’ and Maher’s fans.

Arguably Maher reached his peak of antivaccine advocacy through his weekly HBO talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher, five years ago, when the H1N1 pandemic was going on and public health officials were working hard to persuade people to get vaccinated against H1N1 influenza. Indeed, it got so bad that his own guests, such as Bill Frist and Bob Costas, were openly dissing him on his own show for his antivaccine views. Perhaps my favorite example came from Bob Costas, who in response to a wild claim by Maher that he doesn’t worry about getting the flu, even in the crowded confines of an airplane because of his superior lifestyle that apparently made him immune, blurted out, “Oh, come on, Superman!” Even worse, a friend of Maher, Michael Shermer, published an “Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations” in—of all places—The Huffington Post, which led Maher to respond, both on his show (in which he referred to vaccination as a “risky medical procedure”) and in a post on HuffPo himself entitled “Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having“. It was, as a certain “friend of the blog” put it, a pyre of stupidity.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“America’s Quack” strikes back

Wile E. Coyote or Dr. Henry Miller? You be the judge!

Wile E. Coyote or Dr. Henry Miller? You be the judge!

Those of you who read my not-so-super-secret other blog (or who follow the news) familiar with this, but I feel that what happened over the last couple of weeks with respect to a man to whom I like to refer as “America’s Quack” is worth posting right here, in modified form.

Last week, a group of ten doctors led by Dr. Henry Miller, most of whom were affiliated either with the Hoover Institution or the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH)—or both—wrote a letter to Lee Goldman, MD, the Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine at Columbia University complaining that Dr. Mehmet Oz shouldn’t be faculty at Columbia University because of his “disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops” and “an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.” The letter produced a fair amount of media attention a week ago. I originally mildly approved of it, but over the course of a few days after the letter was released, my opinion on it soured. The reasons were several and included a profound distaste for threatening letters sent to a person’s employers, admittedly based in part on my own experiences having been at the receiving end of such intimidation tactics, as well as a concern that the letter had been written with no clear purpose behind it other than as a publicity stunt to embarrass Dr. Oz and Columbia. When I learned that Dr. Oz was planning to answer the letter on his show this week, there were predictions that this particularly bone-headed publicity stunt would backfire spectacularly. And it did.

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Science and the Media, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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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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