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Asthma, placebo, and how not to kill your patients

A number of years ago I was walking along Lake Michigan with a friend (a fellow medical resident) when she turned to me and said, “are you wheezing?  Do you have asthma?”  I had always been physically active and assumed my breathlessness while walking down the trail was due to the thirty extra pounds of pizza and doughnuts I’d acquired during residency.  But she was right: I was wheezing and breathless and it didn’t feel good at all.  I made an appointment with one of the hospital’s lung docs who took a good history, did a physical, and ran some pulmonary function tests.  And I did have asthma.  And it felt much, much better when I used proper medication, a feeling confirmed by my improving lung function tests. (Not too surprisingly, the asthma got even better when I lost 40 lbs and started treatment for my acid reflux.)

I still get mild asthma symptoms from time to time, especially when I get sick, but for many others, the picture isn’t so pretty.  Asthma kills at least a quarter of a million people every year around the world.   If you’ve ever worked in an ER and seen a kid with a bad asthma attack, you’ve earned a healthy respect for the disease.  If you’ve ever watched your own kid gasping for breath, begging you to make it better, you’ve learned to fear it.

As our understanding of asthma has improved, so has our ability to treat it (an ability that is strongly linked to a patient’s socio-economic status.  Mortality has been rising despite the discovery of better treatments.  Wait: let’s pull this out of the parentheses…)…  Asthma deaths and hospitalizations are largely preventable, and disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic Americans. We know how to treat the disease asthma, but don’t know how to treat the people who are affected most. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine

Background

This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word “doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Salt: More confirmation bias for your preferred narrative

Judging by the recent press reports, the latest Cochrane review reveals that everything we’ve been told about eating salt, and cardiovascular disease, is wrong:

The New York Times: Nostrums: Cutting Salt Has Little Effect on Heart Risk

The Daily Mail: Cutting back on salt ‘does not make you healthier’ (despite nanny state warnings)

Scientific American: It’s Time to End the War on Salt

Sometimes it’s possible to completely miss this point. And that’s what’s happened here.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Behavior and Public Health – To Nudge or Legislate

As health care costs rise and great attention is being paid to the health care system in many countries (perhaps especially the US), the debate is heating up over how to improve public health. Many health problems are greatly increased by the lifestyle choices individuals make – smoking, weight control, and exercise to name a few. The problem is that it is notoriously difficult to change behavior.
There are different ways to approach the challenge of improving lifestyle choices to reduce chronic illness. We can take actions aimed at the individual or aimed at society. These actions can be gentle or passive (the so-called “nudge theory”), or they can be more draconian, such as banning certain activity. We can, of course, do all of these things simultaneously, and may need to in order to have a significant impact.

Affecting Individual Behavior

A common criticism of mainstream physicians is that they do not have much impact on the lifestyle of their patients. This is largely true – although there is no convincing evidence that any practitioners have a significant impact on lifestyle. This is mainly the result of the fact that it is extremely difficult to get people to change their behavior.

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Posted in: Public Health

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Antidepressants and Effect Size

Antidepressant drugs have been getting a bad rap in the media. I’ll just give 3 examples:

  • On the Today show, prominent medical expert :-) Tom Cruise told us Brooke Shields shouldn’t have taken these drugs for her postpartum depression.
  • In Natural News, “Health Ranger” Mike Adams accused pharmaceutical companies and the FDA of covering up negative information about antidepressants, saying it would be considered criminal activity in any other industry.
  • And an article in Newsweek said  “Studies suggest that the popular drugs are no more effective than a placebo. In fact, they may be worse.”

Yet psychiatrists are convinced that antidepressants work and are still routinely prescribing them for their patients. Is it all a Big Pharma plot? Who ya gonna believe? Inquiring minds want to know:

  • Are antidepressants more effective than placebo?
  • Has the efficacy of antidepressants been exaggerated?
  • Is psychotherapy a better treatment choice?

The science-based answers to the first two questions are clearly “Yes.” The best answer to the third question is “It depends.” (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals

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Spin City: Using placebos to evaluate objective and subjective responses in asthma

As I type this, I’m on an airplane flying home from The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas. Sadly, I couldn’t stay for Sunday; my day job calls as I’ll be hosting a visiting professor. However, I can say—and with considerable justification, I believe—that out little portion of TAM mirrored the bigger picture in that it was a big success. Attendance at both our workshop on Thursday and our panel discussion on placebos on Saturday was fantastic, beyond our most optimistic expectations. There was also a bit of truly amazing serendipity that helped make our panel discussion on placebo medicine an even bigger success.

If there’s one thing about going away to a meeting, be it TAM or a professional meeting, it’s that it suddenly becomes very difficult for me to keep track of all the medical and blog stuff that I normally keep track of and nearly impossible to keep up with the medical literature. This is the likely explanation for why I had been unaware of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on Thursday that was so relevant to our discussion and illustrated out points so perfectly that it was hard to believe that some divine force didn’t give it to us in order to make our panel a total success.

Just kidding. It was TAM, after all. It was, however, embarrassing that I didn’t see the study until the morning of our panel, when Kimball Atwood showed it to me.

Before I get to the meat of this study and why it fit into our nefarious plans for world domination, (or at least the domination of medicine by science-based treatments), a brief recap of the panel discussion would seem to be in order. First, for the most part, we all more or less agreed that the term “placebo effect” is a misnomer and somewhat deceptive because it implies that there is a true physiologic effect caused by an inert intervention. “Placebo response” or “placebo responses” seemed to us a better term because what we are observing with a placebo is in reality a patient’s subjective response to thinking that he is having something active done having something done. In general, we do not see placebo responses resulting improvement in objective outcomes; i.e., prolonged survival in cancer. The relative contributions of components of this response, be they expectancy effects (if you expect to feel better you likely will feel better), conditioning, or one that is frequently dismissed or downplayed, namely artifacts of the design of randomized clinical trials and even subtle (or even not-so-subtle) biases in trial design. This issue of placebo responses being observed only in subjective patient-reported clinical outcomes (pain, anxiety, and the like) and not in objectively measured outcomes is an important one, and it is one that goes to the heart of the NEJM study that so serendipitously manifested itself to us. As Mark Crislip so humorously pointed out, the placebo response is the beer goggles of medicine (this is not a spoiler or stealing Mark’s line; several TAM attendees have already tweeted Mark’s line), and much of what is being observed are changes in the patient’s perception of his symptoms rather than true changes in the underlying pathophysiology. This study drove the point home better than we could.

Another point discussed by the panel is also quite relevant. As more and more studies demonstrate very convincingly that “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM) therapies do not produce improvements in symptoms greater than placebo. Moreover, multiple studies, including a famous NEJM meta-analysis and a recently updated Cochrane review, demonstrate, placebo responses probably do not constitute meaningful responses. In light of these findings, CAM apologists, driven by ideology rather than science and masters of spin, have begun to admit grudgingly that, yes, in essence their treatments are elaborate placebos. Not to be deterred, instead of simply concluding that their CAM interventions do not work, they’ve moved the goal posts and started to try to argue that it doesn’t matter that CAM effects are placebo effects because placebos are “powerful” and good and—oh, yes, by the way—there are a lot of treatments in science-based medicine that do little better than placebos. In other words, CAM advocates elevate the subjective above the objective and sell the subjective, and that’s exactly what they are doing with this study.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics

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Honey

I cram for TAM, and, combined with other commitments, not the least of which is that it is finally sunny and warm in Portland, after a year that has resembled All the Summer in a Day,  which leads to a relatively short post.  There are just so many hours in a day and if possible those days need to be spent in the sun.

In my first year in practice I was sitting on a nursing station writing a note when a patient started howling in pain.  Further investigation revealed that the patient had a chronic, open surgical wound and the (old) surgeon had ordered sugar poured into the wound as part of wound care.  The cafeteria mistakenly sent up salt, and a metaphor became reality.  It did pique my interest in both sugar and honey for wound care,  an area where you have to be careful not to fall prey to all the errors in CAM thinking: a reliance on anecdotes, using suboptimal studies as evidence, mistaking a gobbet of basic science as a meaningful clinical application, and not realizing the warping effect of confirmation bias.

That being said, I have suggested honey and sugar for years for patients, and many patients with prior refractory wounds had healing.  And what are the three most dangerous words in medicine?  In my experience.  I have recommended honey less in the era of the wound vac, but there are not an insignificant number of people with insufficient financial resources who cannot afford even simple wound care supplies. Many  of the ointments, creams and special bandages for wound care costs too much.  Patients also like honey as it is natural (people do love to fall for the naturalistic fallacy) and inexpensive, and I always tell patients that the data is iffy, but not stupid. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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SBM at TAM9

Many of the SBM blogger are at The Amazing Meeting 9 this week – or TAM9 From Outer Space, as it is whimsically called. The JREF, who sponsors TAM, is a big supporter of our efforts at SBM and, in fact, as of this year co-sponsors this blog along with the New England Skeptical Society (both non-profits).

This year, as with the last two TAMs, there will be a workshop on SBM. The topic is, “Oh no, not again! – Recurring themes in medical mythology.” David Gorski, Kimball Atwood, Harriet Hall, Mark Crislip and I decided to discuss the most common recurrent themes in unscientific or philosophy-based medicine (which is much of what passes for CAM). The core idea of the workshop is that the same basic themes keep cropping up again and again in CAM modalities. They may contain slight variations on the basic theme, but mostly are just the same thing with a different superficial window dressing.

So, for example, many systems are based upon the common theme of “energy medicine” – the notion that there is a life force or life energy that is responsible for health, and blockages in the flow or power of this energy cause “unwellness.” Modalities as apparently distinct as straight chiropractic, acupuncture, and Reiki are all based on this pre-scientific idea.

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Posted in: Announcements

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Electrodermal Testing Part II: Legal and Regulatory Aspects

Last week I described electrodermal testing. I’m sure many readers thought, “There oughta be a law against that.” Well, there are laws. Unfortunately, having laws and enforcing them are two different things.

Some of these devices are not approved at all. Most have received 501(k) approval from the FDA as biofeedback devices so similar to previous devices that they do not require new approval — for biofeedback. It is illegal to use the devices for anything other than biofeedback. The FDA has prohibited their sale or importation for unapproved purposes like electrodermal testing; it has sent warnings to companies, raided clinics, and confiscated machines. States have prosecuted users for practicing medicine without a license. Medical boards have chastised licensed providers. The Quackwatch website lists these regulatory actions but points out that there has been no systematic effort to drive these devices from the marketplace.

Excuses, Excuses

One electrodermal testing website admits that what it is doing is illegal and tries to fight back with this specious disclaimer:

It is important to understand that the laws in the USA forbid me from being able to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent disease. The AMA has a patent on those words and only a licensed medical doctor can do that.  And although it is legal for a licensed medical doctor to violate the Hippocratic oath and prescribe toxic drugs that cause harm and sometimes even kill patients, it is illegal for me to claim you can be cured using natural, nontoxic remedies, even though thousands of people can testify how they have been healed using natural remedies.

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Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Energy Medicine, Legal

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Anti-vaccine propaganda in The Baltimore Sun

The hypothesis that vaccines cause autism has been about as thoroughly falsified through research as any health hypothesis can be. Even if, by bending over backward into a back-breaking contortionist pose to be “open-minded”, some people will concede that there’s still a bit of room for reasonable doubt about whether there is no link between vaccines and autism in “susceptible” populations, there is no room for reasonable doubt left over whether vaccines caused the so-called “autism-epidemic” of the last two decades. They did not. Similarly, the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which used to be in several childhood vaccines until the end of 2001, when thimerosal was removed from all but some flu vaccines, has been about as cleared of being a cause of autism as it is possible for a substance to be. Basically, if thimerosal-containing vaccines were a cause of autism, we would have expected to see a decrease in autism prevalence beginning three to five years after the removal of thimerosal. Epidemiological studies have failed to find such a decline and have also failed to find evidence of correlation. I realize that anti-vaccine activists argue that there are still trace amounts of thimerosal in some vaccines, but, even so, thimerosal exposure in children fell almost overnight to levels lower than the 1980s, which was before the beginning of the “autism epidemic.” At the very least, one would expect autism rates to fall back to 1980s levels if thimerosal in vaccines were a driving force behind this “epidemic.” They haven’t. Quite the contrary, they’ve continued to climb.

So why does the manufactroversy that vaccines cause autism persist? There is no longer a scientific controversy; by and large, the question has been asked and answered. Vaccines do not cause autism, as far as we can detect. True, it’s impossible to completely prove a negative hypothesis, but if there is any way that vaccines do cause autism, it’s at a level below the ability of large epidemiological studies with tens or even hundreds of thousands of children to detect. Yet the fear persists.

One reason is that it’s very hard to eradicate a false belief, once entrenched. I’ve discussed many times how difficult it is to change people’s minds, as motivated reasoning leads them to seek confirming evidence and discount all else. Disconfirming evidence can even lead people to harden their beliefs even more. In particular, the hardcore anti-vaccine activists who persist in spreading the vaccine-autism myth have an interest and motivation in this mythology at least as potent as the interest pharmaceutical companies have in defending vaccines—more so, arguably, given the emotional attachment people have for their children. After all, all pharmaceutical companies are interested in, according to this mythology, is profit. If a parent, correctly or incorrectly, somehow comes to believe that something or someone has hurt his or her child, it is among the most potent motivations known to do something about it.

Another reason is that the concept has become entrenched in our culture—or at least parts of our culture—to the point where it appears regularly in the media, thus reinforcing the idea among those who don’t pay attention to the issue or those who do but haven’t decided if they believe that vaccines cause autism that maybe there is something to fear. Maybe there is still a controversy. A perfect example appeared in The Baltimore Sun over the weekend entitled We don’t know enough about childhood vaccines and subtitled Researcher asks: Are 36 doses of vaccine by age 2 too much, too little, or just right? I contend that the editors of The Baltimore Sun, by publishing this anti-vaccine propaganda, which would have been at home on the websites of the anti-vaccine blog Age of Autism or on the website of anti-vaccine groups SafeMinds, Generation Rescue, the International Medical Council on Vaccination or the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). Examining this article, written by Margaret Dunkle, described as a “senior research scientist at the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University and director of the Early Identification and Intervention Collaborative for Los Angeles County” and as having “a family member who is vaccine-injured,” is what I would consider a “teachable moment” in analyzing the tactics of the anti-vaccine movement.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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