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2009’s Top 5 Threats To Science In Medicine

As 2009 comes to an end, it seems that everyone is creating year-in-review lists. I thought I’d jump on the list band wagon and offer my purely subjective top 5 threats to rational thought in healthcare and medicine.

Of course, it strikes me as rather ironic that we’re having this discussion – who knew that medicine could be divorced from science in the first place? I thought the two went hand-in-hand, like a nice antigen and its receptor… and yet, here we are, on the verge of tremendous technological breakthroughs (thanks to advances in our understanding of molecular genetics, immunology, and biochemistry, etc.), faced with a growing number of people who prefer to resort to placebo-based remedies (such as heavy-metal laced herbs or vigorously shaken water) and Christian Science Prayer.

And so, without further ado, here’s my list of the top 5 threats to science in medicine for 2009 and beyond:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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“Toxins”: the new evil humours

They say that everything old is new again and that is certainly true in the world of “alternative” health. One of the axiomatic premises of contemporary “alternative” health puts its believers behind the times … by approximately 500 years.

A fundamental premise held by believers in “alternative” health is that we are swimming in a world of “toxins” and those “toxins” are causing disease. Like most premises in “alternative” health it has no basis in scientific fact; makes intuitive sense only if you are ignorant of medicine, science and statistics; and speaks to primitive fears and impulses.

The preoccupation with “toxins” is a direct lineal descendant of the obsession with evil humours and miasmas as causes of disease. It is hardly surprising that prior to the invention of the microscope the real causes of disease went undiscovered. The idea that disease is caused by tiny organisms that invade the body is not amenable to discovery in the absence of scientific instruments and scientific reasoning. And it goes without saying that the same people who were unaware that bacteria and viruses cause disease could not possibly imagine chromosomal defects, inborn errors of metabolism or genetic predispositions to disease.

Instead, people imagined that diseases were caused by excess evil humours, substances that were named, but never seen or identified in any way accessible to the senses. It was recognized that some diseases were contagious, and in that case, people invoked the idea of “miasmas” that somehow transmitted disease.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Lithium for ALS – Angioplasty for MS

Peter Lipson reported Monday about new research suggesting that Multiple Sclerosis may be caused by venous blockage. He correctly characterized some of the hype surrounding this story as “irrational exuberance.”

This is a phenomenon all too common in the media – taking the preliminary research of an individual or group (always presented as a maverick) and declaring it a “stunning breakthrough,” combined with the ubiquitous personal anecdote of someone “saved” by the new treatment.

The medical community, meanwhile, responds with appropriate caution and healthy skepticism. Looks interesting – let’s see some more research. There is a reason for such a response from experts – experience.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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Medical Fun with Christmas Carols

Warning: If you are offended by humor that depends on psychiatric and medical diagnoses, read no further.

Disclaimer: Before anyone complains (and in this age of exaggerated political correctness, someone surely will), let me make it clear that I mean no disrespect to people suffering from the illnesses mentioned below. I have the greatest empathy for sick people, and I have encountered several of these conditions in my own family and have actually experienced four of them myself. Humor about them doesn’t offend me, and I hope it will not offend you. Also, my mention of Christmas and Hanukkah songs is not intended to endorse any religious belief.

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After a year of serious talk about mostly discouraging things, I thought it was time for a totally frivolous post to cheer us up with a little holiday humor. A friend sent me a list of “Christmas Carols for the Psych Ward.” I thought they were funny, and I’ve copied the best of them below. I’ve added a few of my own for other medical diagnoses, and then I added several about complementary and alternative medicine. (more…)

Posted in: Humor

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Multiple Sclerosis and Irrational Exuberance

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is fascinating illness that can range from mild annoyance to debilitating nightmare. The frightening nature and unclear cause of the disease makes it a magnet for questionable medical therapies (i.e. quackery). A piece published last week in (surprise!) the Huffington Post helps fuel the fires of suspicion and paranoia while failing to shed any light on the future of MS research.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system. Its victims develop symptoms based on what part of the nervous system is affected. For example, if MS attacks the optic nerve, a patient may experience blurry vision or blindness. If it affects the motor areas of the brain that controls the left leg, the patient will develop weakness in the left leg. Typically, the symptoms will last a certain period of time and then improve, but often not completely back to normal. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Radiation from medical imaging and cancer risk

ResearchBlogging.orgScience-based medicine consists of a balancing of risks and benefits for various interventions. This is sometimes a difficult topic for the lay public to understand, and sometimes physicians even forget it. My anecdotal experience suggests that probably surgeons are usually more aware of this basic fact because our interventions generally involve taking sharp objects to people’s bodies and using steel to remove or rearrange parts of people’s anatomy for (hopefully) therapeutic effect. Ditto oncologists, who prescribe highly toxic substances to treat cancer, the idea being that these substances are more toxic to the cancer than they are to the patient. Often they are only marginally more toxic to the cancer than to the patient. However, if there’s one area where even physicians tend to forget that there is potential risk involved, it’s the area of diagnostic tests, in particular radiological diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, fluoroscopy, computed tomography (CT) scans, and the variety of ever more powerful diagnostic studies that have proliferated over since CT scans first entered medical practice in the 1970s. Since then, the crude images that the first CT scans produced have evolved, thanks to technology and ever greater computing power, to breathtaking three dimensional-views of the internal organs. Indeed, just since I finished medical school back in the late 1980s, I’m continually amazed at what these new imaging modalities can accomplish.

The downside of these imaging modalities is that most of them require the use of X-rays to produce their images. True, over the last 15 years or so MRI, which uses very strong magnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation rather than ionizing radiation to produce its images, has become increasingly prevalent. MRI is great because it produces more contrast between different kinds of soft tissue than CT scans do. However, CT tends to be superior for examining calcified organs, such as bone. (The breast surgeon in me notes that breast MRI is pretty much useless for detecting microcalcifications, an important possible indicator for cancer.) Also, MRI scans require a prolonged period of laying still in a very tight tube, which is a problem for patients with any degree of claustrophobia, although “open” MRIs are becoming increasingly available. More importantly for the quality of images, because they require a patient to lie more still than a CT, MRIs tend to be prone to more motion artifacts, which is perhaps why CT is more frequently used to image the abdomen other than large solid organs such as the liver. The point is that, although MRI is becoming more prevalent, CT scans aren’t going away any time soon. They have different strengths and weaknesses as imaging modalities and are therefore best suited for different, albeit overlapping, sets of indications.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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Measles

It looks like the H1N1 pandemic is fading fast. I am amazed at how lucky we were, at least in the hospitals where I work. A month ago all the ICU beds were full, most of the ventilators were in use and we were wondering how we were going to triage the next batch of patients who needed advanced life support and we had none to offer. Then, right as we reached maximum capacity and had no more wiggle room, the rates plummeted. We skated right up to the edge of the precipice, looked down, and did not have to jump.

The pandemic has not been as bad as expected, but it was still no walk in the park. Nationwide H1N1 killed maybe 10,000, with 1,100 in children and 7,500 among young adults (ref). Oregon has had 1200 hospitalizations and 68 deaths. We had about 8 deaths from H1N1 in my hospital system. We would have had twice that number, but one of our hospitals is a trauma center and offers ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) and we managed to save a number of people who would have died if they had been in a lesser hospital. The national statistics mirror our experience. None of the deaths were in the elderly. Pity the vaccine was slow to be produced as it could have prevented the majority of those deaths.

Are we done with H1N1? Will it become part of seasonal flu? Will it have a third comeback, fueled by holiday travel? Will it mutate and increase virulence? Will it recombine with avian flu to generate a new strain? Is this THE pandemic that comes every 30 years or so, and we will not see another until after I am long dead?

How am I supposed to know? I can’t see the future. Or can I? Mr. Randi, listen up: I am thinking I will be eligible for that million dollar prize. I am receiving future information from the Large Hadron Collider, curiously delivered inside a baguette. I think I can predict the next infection to sweep the US.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Are the benefits of breastfeeding oversold?

As a mother, I am a passionate advocate of breastfeeding and I breastfed my four children. As a clinician, though, I need to be mindful not to counsel patients based on my personal preferences, but rather based on the scientific evidence. While breastfeeding has indisputable advantages, the medical advantages are quite small. Many current efforts to promote breastfeeding, while well meaning, overstate the benefits of breastfeeding and distorts the risks of not breastfeeding, particularly in regard to longterm benefits.

As Joan Wolf explains in an article entitled Is Breast Really Best? Risk and Total Motherhood in the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign:

… Medical journals are replete with contradictory conclusions about the impact of breast-feeding: for every study linking it to better health, another finds it to be irrelevant, weakly significant, or inextricably tied to other unmeasured or unmeasurable factors. While many of these investigations describe a correlation between breast-feeding and more desirable outcomes, the notion that breast-feeding itself contributes to better health is far less certain, and this is a crucial distinction that breast-feeding proponents have consistently elided. If current research is a weak justification for public health recommendations, it is all the more so for a risk-based message that generates and then profits from the anxieties of soon-to-be and new mothers…

Wolf describes the problems with many studies of breastfeeding, particularly those that focus on long term outcomes:

In breast-feeding studies, potential confounding makes it difficult to isolate the protective powers of breast milk itself or to rule out the possibility that something associated with breast-feeding is responsible for the benefits attributed to breast milk. As the number of years between breastfeeding and the measured health outcome grows, so too does the list of possibly influential factors, which means that the challenge is magnifiedwhen trying to evaluate long-term benefits of breastfeeding… Breast-feeding, in other words, cannot be distinguished from the decision to breast-feed, which, irrespective of socioeconomic status or education,could represent an orientation toward parenting that is itself likely to have a positive impact on children’s health. In instances such as this, in which the exposure (breast-feeding) and confounder (behavior) are likely to be very highly correlated, confounding is especially difficult to detect. When behavior associated with breast-feeding has the potential to explain much of the statistical advantage attributed to breast milk, the scientific claim that breast-feeding confers health benefits … needs to be reexamined.

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Posted in: Nutrition, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Communicating with the Locked-In

The primary reason that I and others favor science-based medicine, as opposed to the alternatives, is that science works. As Carl Sagan said, “Science delivers the good.” Science has other virtues – it is transparent and self-corrective also.

Recently two unrelated news items have provided an opportunity to compare a scientific vs a pseudoscientific approach to the same problem – that of communicating to patients who are locked-in.

Locked-in describes those who suffer from an injury or neurological disease that mostly paralyzes them, so that they cannot move or communicate. One scenario that leads to a locked-in state is a brainstem stroke, where patients are paralyzed below the eyes – they can only blink and move their eyes, but nothing else. Widespread trauma can lead to a similar situation. ALS, which leads to progressive loss of motor neurons, can also result in total or near total paralysis.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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The One True Cause of All Disease

Note: This is a slightly modified version of an article that was published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 34, No. 1, January/Februrary 2010. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

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Chiropractors, homeopaths, naturopaths, acupuncturists, and other alternative medicine practitioners constantly criticize mainstream medicine for “only treating the symptoms,” while alternative medicine allegedly treats “the underlying causes” of disease.

Nope. Not true. Exactly backwards. Think about it. When you go to a doctor with a fever, does he just treat the symptom? No, he tries to figure out what’s causing the fever and if it’s pneumonia, he identifies which microbe is responsible and gives you the right drugs to treat that particular infection. If you have abdominal pain, does the doctor just give you narcotics to treat the symptom of pain? No, he tries to figure out what’s causing the pain and if he determines you have acute appendicitis he operates to remove your appendix.

I guess what they’re trying to say is that something must have been wrong in the first place to allow the disease to develop. But they don’t have any better insight into what that something might be than scientific medicine does. All they have is wild, imaginative guesses. And they all disagree with one another. The chiropractor says if your spine is in proper alignment you can’t get sick. Acupuncturists talk about the proper flow of qi through the meridians. Energy medicine practitioners talk about disturbances in energy fields. Nutrition faddists claim that people who eat right won’t get sick. None of them can produce any evidence to support those claims. No alternative medicine has been scientifically shown to prevent disease or to cure it. If it had, it would have been incorporated into conventional medicine and would no longer be “alternative.”

Are these practitioners treating the underlying cause, or are they simply applying their one chosen tool to treat everything? Chiropractors treat every patient with chiropractic adjustments. What if a doctor used one treatment for everything? You have pneumonia? Here’s some penicillin. You have a broken leg? Here’s some penicillin. You have diabetes? Here’s some penicillin. Acupuncturists only know to stick needles in people. Homeopaths only know to give out ridiculously high dilutions that amount to nothing but water. Therapeutic touch practitioners only know to smooth out the wrinkles in imaginary energy fields. They are not trying to determine any underlying cause: they are just using one treatment indiscriminately. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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