Spring is here. I don’t say that because of the warmer weather, the blooming tulips in my back yard, or the current effect of the earth’s axial tilt on the Northern hemisphere. No, in my somewhat warped world of the pediatric ICU seasons are marked by illnesses and injuries with an annual rhythm. Fall begins with a spike in cases of bronchiolitis, Summer with a near-drowning in a swimming pool. Winter has arrived when seasonal influenza reappears. And Spring, well, Spring has several harbingers, including auto vs bicycle accidents, falls from windows, and snakebites.
Sure enough, this week we admitted our first child of the year bitten by a venomous snake who, like most people unfortunate enough to be envenomated by a North American pit viper, has done very well. This child fell prey not only to our local limbless fauna, but also to one of several common myths or misunderstandings about snakebites that place the victim, rescuer, or both at higher risk for injury and complications. This post will explore some of the more common mistakes people make during North American snakebite encounters (being limited to snakes native to North America, the following does not necessarily apply to snakes from other areas).
File this post under Science-Based-You’re-Not-Helping-Please-Don’t-Do-That.
Myth #1: You Need to Know the Species / Kill the Snake
North America has around 120 species of snake, over 20 of which are venomous. With so many species, it may seem important to ID the snake so the docs in the ED can give the appropriate anti-venin. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. (more…)
Imagine you’re an FDA reviewer looking at a new drug application. Drug A relieves a symptom, but doesn’t cure any disease. It doesn’t conflict with other medications. It’s considered safe in pregnant and breastfeeding women. At normal doses, there are virtually no side effects. There’s one unfortunate problem: If you take ten times the dose, liver damage is very likely and may be fatal. In other countries, Drug A is the number one cause of acute liver failure.
Should Drug A be available without a prescription?
Now consider another drug. Drug B also treats a symptom, but can also be used to treat a number of acute and chronic conditions, some of which require monitoring by specialist physicians. Drug B should generally be avoided in children, as it is associated with a rare but fatal toxicity. Even at normal doses, it can cause an array of side effects, and severe digestive system toxicity, resulting in hospital admission, is not uncommon. It interacts with other prescription drugs, and can be fatal in overdose situations.
Should Drug B be available without a prescription?
Two recent acupuncture studies have received some media attention, both purporting to show positive effects. Both studies are also not clinical efficacy trials, so cannot be used to support any claims for efficacy for acupuncture – although that is how they are often being presented in the media.
These and other studies show the dire need for more trained science journalists, or science blogging – they only make sense when put into a proper context. No media coverage I read bothered to do this.
The first study comes out of South Korea and involves using acupuncture in a rat model of spinal cord injury. The researchers used a standard method of inducing spinal cord injury in rats, and compared various acupuncture locations to no-acupuncture control. They followed a series of metabolic outcomes, as well as the extent of spinal cord injury and functional recovery. They conclude:
Thus, our results suggest that the neuroprotection by acupuncture may be partly mediated via inhibition of inflammation and microglial activation after SCI and acupuncture can be used as a potential therapeutic tool for treating acute spinal injury in human.
The notion that acupuncture will actually improve outcome after acute spinal cord injury is, of course, extraordinary. This goes far beyond a subjective decrease in pain or some other symptomatic benefit. Therefore similarly extraordinary evidence should be required to support such a claim – and this study does not provide that.
It is my pleasure to announce the addition of a new SBM blogger. Impressed by his dedication to applying scientific principles to the profession of pharmacy, we have recruited Scott Gavura, who is currently best known for his work on Science-Based Pharmacy. You can find out a bit more about his background at his new page on SBM, and his first post is scheduled for Thursday, May 13. In the beginning he will be posting approximately once every four weeks.
Please join me in welcoming Scott to the SBM team.
For most of human history, doctors have killed their patients more often than they have saved them. An excellent new book, Taking the Medicine: A Short History of Medicine’s Beautiful Idea, and Our Difficulty Swallowing It, by Druin Burch, MD, describes medicine’s bleak past, how better ways of thinking led to modern successes, and how failure to adopt those better ways of thinking continues to impede medical progress.
The moral is not that doctors once did foolish things. The moral is that even the best of people let themselves down when they rely on untested theories and that these failures kill people and stain history. Bleeding and mercury have gone out of fashion, untested certainties and overconfidence have not.
Burch’s conversation with his rowing coach epitomizes the problem:
“I want you to keep your heart rate at 85% of max for the next hour and a half.”
“Because it’s the best way to improve your fitness.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve done it before and it worked. Because that’s what the people who win the Olympics do. I know, I’ve trained some of them.”
“But has anyone actually done an experiment?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
This book is Burch’s answer to his coach’s question. Medicine’s “beautiful idea” is that we should test all hypotheses and beliefs using the kind of tests that are reliable for determining the truth. Instead of going by tradition, authority, theory, common sense, or personal experience, we now have effective tools to find out for sure whether a treatment really works. (more…)
Mark Crislip is always a hard act to follow, particularly when he’s firing on all cylinders, as he was last Friday. Although I can sometimes match him (and, on rare occasions, even surpass him) for amusing snark, this time around I’m going to remain mostly serious because that’s what the subject matter requires. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a bit of an odd bird in the world of cancer in that I’m both a surgeon and I run a lab. Sadly, there just aren’t very many surgeons doing basic and translational research these days, thanks to declining NIH funding, increasing clinical burden necessitated by declining reimbursements, and the increasing complexity of laboratory-based research. That’s not to say that there aren’t some surgeons out there doing excellent laboratory research, but sometimes I feel as though I’m part of an endangered species, particularly years like this when grants are running out and I need to renew my funding or secure new funding, the consequence of failure being the dissolution of my laboratory. It’s a tough world out there in biomedical research.
As tough as biomedical research is in cancer, to my mind far tougher is research trying to tease out the relationship between environmental exposures and cancer risk. If you want complicated, that’s complicated. For one thing, obtaining epidemiological data is incredibly labor- and cost-intensive, and rarely are the data clear cut. There’s always ambiguity, not to mention numerous confounding factors that conspire to exaggerate on the one hand or hide on the other hand correlations between environmental exposures and cancer. As a result, studies are often conflicting, and making sense of the morass of often contradictory studies can tax even the most skillful scientists and epidemiologists. Communicating the science and epidemiology linking environment and cancer to the public is even harder. What the lay person often sees is that one day a study is in the news telling him that X causes cancer and then a month later another study says that X doesn’t cause cancer. Is it any wonder that people are often confused over what is and is not dangerous? Add to this a distinct inability on the part of most people, even highly educated people, to weigh small risks against one another (an inability that has led to phenomena such as the anti-vaccine movement), and the task of trying to decide what is dangerous, what is not, how policy is formulated based on this science, and how to communicate the science and the policy derived from it to the public is truly Herculean.
This is not an easy blog to write. Doctors Novella and Gorski want the entries to be formal, academic, referenced, with a minimum of snark.
For the most part I comply. But sometimes. Sometimes. It is hard, so hard, not to spiral into sarcastic diatribes over the writings that pass for information on the interwebs. How should one respond to profound ignorance and misinformation? I wish, sometimes, that I could be an irascible computer as well.
What brings on this particular bit of angst is a bit of whimsy on the Internet called “9 Questions That Stump Every Pro-Vaccine Advocate and Their Claims.” by David Mihalovic, ND. Mr. Mihalovic identifies himself as “a naturopathic medical doctor who specializes in vaccine research.” However, just where the research is published is uncertain as his name yields no publications on Pubmed. BTW. I specialize in beer research. Same credentials.
Science-based medicine is, among other things, a tool. Science helps us sequester our biases so that we may better understand reality. Of course, there is no way to avoid being human; our biases and our intuition still betray us, and when they do, we use other tools. Ethics help us think through situations using an explicitly-stated set of values that most of us agree upon (and in order to get wide agreement, these precepts must be pretty general).
Ethical problems are a normal part of medical practice. In medical school I received a bit of formal didactic education on ethics, and on the floors we often have formal ethical discussions to help understand and resolve conflicts. But ethics are not a weapon used to obtain a result we want; they are a tool to give a framework for understanding and resolving dilemmas. Ethical dilemmas can arise out of may types of conflicts, for example when our personal beliefs clash with those of our patients, or when patients’ and families’ desires conflict. They can also arise when we as physicians are constrained in our actions by outside forces.
On SBM we have documented the many and various ways that science is abused in the pursuit of health (or making money from those who are pursuing health). One such method is to take a new, but reasonable, scientific hypothesis and run with it, long past the current state of the evidence. We see this with the many bogus stem cell therapy clinics that are popping up in parts of the world with lax regulation.
This type of medical pseudoscience is particularly challenging to deal with, because there is a scientific paper trail that seems to support many of the claims of proponents. The claims themselves may have significant plausibility, and parts of the claims may in fact be true. Efforts to educate the public about such treatments are frustrated by the mainstream media’s lazy tendency to discuss every study as if it were the definitive last word on a topic, and to site individual experts as if they represent the consensus of scientific opinion.
Recent claims made for low dose naltrexone (LDN) fit nicely into this model – a medical intervention with interesting research, but in a preliminary phase that does not justify clinical use. And yet proponents talk about it as if it is a medical revolution.
Last week I wrote about the CME presentations at an obesity course put on by the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. I saved the most controversial one for last. Dr. Kendall Gerdes is a former president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, which I have previously written about. The AAEM is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties and is categorized by Quackwatch as a questionable organization. Dr. Gerdes spoke on food allergies and food addiction.
I wasn’t convinced: I thought much of what he said was questionable. I thought, as a challenge for our readers, it might be an interesting exercise to present his information without comment and let readers look for flaws and form their own opinions. At the end, I’ll offer some suggestions of things to think about.
He described the concept of food addiction as a powerful tool to free patients from compulsive eating. Patients may “have the experience of” being addicted to foods or have symptoms of hunger and of just not feeling well. Specific symptoms of food addiction include fatigue, fibromyalgia, GI symptoms, cardiac arrhythmias, asthma, rhinitis, arthritis and seizures. There is no “gold standard” way to diagnose food allergies. He relies mainly on avoidance and challenge. (more…)