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…)
In a paper published in 2008, two academic chiropractors offered this observation: “The health claims made by chiropractors with respect to the application of manipulation as a health care intervention for pediatric health conditions continue to be supported by only low levels of scientific evidence. Chiropractors continue to treat a wide variety of pediatric health conditions.”1
Despite lack of support by the medical and scientific community, chiropractic treatment of children is growing in popularity, and more chiropractors are specializing in “chiropractic pediatrics.”
The International Chiropractic Association offers a post-graduate “Diplomate in Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics” (DICCP) and publishes a “peer reviewed” Journal of Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics. The diplomate syllabus is a 30-module, 360+ hours classroom course during weekends over a three-year period. There is no hospital training and no contact with diseased or injured children — only a “mandatory observational/training weekend at a chiropractic center for special needs children under multi-disciplinary care.”2 A post-graduate certification in chiropractic pediatrics (CICCP) can be earned after 180 hours of classroom instruction.
In a June 2008 joint press release, the American Chiropractic Association’s (ACA) Council on Chiropractic Pediatrics and the Council on Chiropractic Pediatrics of the International Chiropractors Association (ICA) announced that the ICA’s Diplomate in Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics (DICCP) is now recognized by the ACA and its council as the official credential for specialization in chiropractic pediatrics.3
Noting increasing public support for chiropractic treatment of children, a January 2009 press release from the American Chiropractic Association made this announcement: “Survey data indicates that the percentage of chiropractic patients under 17 years of age has increased at least 8.5 percent since 1991.…Studies are beginning to show that chiropractic can help children not only with typical back and neck pain complaints, but also with issues as varied as asthma, chronic ear infections, nursing difficulties, colic and bedwetting.”4
A trend toward greater utilization of chiropractic by children has not gone unnoticed by the medical profession. An article in the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) described chiropractic as the most common complementary and alternative medicine practice used by children, who made an estimated 30 million visits to US chiropractors in 1997.5 In 1998, children and adolescents constituted 11% of patient visits to chiropractors.6
There is a trend in the media when presenting a contentious topic to provide balance. For topics not founded upon objective facts this serves the media well; provide both sides of the argument, and let the viewer decide. The problem is that not every issue is evenly balanced, particularly in science. Covering the discovery of a new extra-solar planet by giving equal airtime to astronomers and astrologers, for example, would be the height of absurdity, yet this is precisely how the media approaches scientific topics with frightening regularity. You need look no further than the coverage of evolution, or 2012, or global climate change (that list should derail the comments nicely) for excellent examples of the same type of false balance in mainstream media outlets.
It was with trepidation, then, that I waited to see how PBS’s Frontline handled the topic of vaccination. I was pleasantly surprised. “The Vaccine War” introduced the most common concerns expressed about vaccination, and then presented the evidence addressing each concern in turn clearly and concisely. It gave airtime to some rather prominent anti-vaccine personalities, but the bulk of the program was dedicated to the data, the science, the evidence, and where answers are available it did not hesitate to present them baldly and clearly. “The Vaccine War” was not a comprehensive review of every perspective, every theory, every vaccine and study, but it did provide a fair discussion balanced by the science.
My first clue that Frontline had acquitted itself well was when Dr. Jay Gordon, pediatrician to Jenny McCarthy’s son, tweeted his opinion of the show:
PBS show about vaccines. Don’t bother to watch it.” (more…)
A few years ago a friend asked me to comment on advice given to her adult daughter by a psychiatrist whom she’d consulted for depression. The psychiatrist had recommended testing samples of saliva and urine for hormone and neurotransmitter levels, the results of which would likely indicate a need for supplements to correct deficiencies or imbalances. According to the psychiatrist, who had an academic appointment at a medical school in New York City, “I have been using these supplements with a great deal of success.” My friend is not medically or scientifically sophisticated, but this made her a little uncomfortable. In that, she was entirely justified.
During our recent panel discussion at the NECSS, a member of the audience identified himself as a clinical pathologist at a major medical center, and wondered what he might do to become involved in the good fight against encroaching pseudoscience in medical schools. Clinical pathology is the medical specialty that concerns itself, in summary, with laboratory tests—their development, their validity, their interpretation, their usefulness and, by implication, their misuse. A topic that we haven’t much featured on SBM (we touched upon it here, here and here, and probably elsewhere) is that of bogus laboratory or other diagnostic tests.
Early in my own education in modern quackery, I found it particularly distasteful not merely that quacks misuse laboratory tests, but that several commercial laboratories market misleading tests. To the untrained eye these laboratories appear to be legitimate, even to the point of their being approved by apparently legitimate certifying bodies. We’ll discuss that below, but first let’s look more closely at the psychiatrist’s recommendations to my friend’s daughter and at other examples of bogus tests.
On Tuesday night PBS FRONTLINE aired an episode about the anti-vaccine movement entitled The Vaccine War (which, by the time you read this, should be available for online viewing in case you missed it). When I first heard that this show was going to air, I was a bit concerned. My concern, of course is what I’m always concerned about when journalists do a story about pseudoscience, be it the anti-vaccine movement, “intelligent design” creationism, various “alternative medicine” modalities, or whatever. We’ve written about such things right here on SBM on more than one occasion, be it Dr. Jay Gordon on The Doctors or Andrew Wakefield being interviewed by Matt Lauer. Although FRONTLINE has done a pretty good, science-based job on controversial topics, I felt some trepidation, particularly after seeing some of the promos for the show, even though it featured Dr. Paul Offit, and other physicians and scientists.
Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The Vaccine War is not perfect. There are some definite flaws, but by and large it is a rare thing on TV: A science-based discussion of a pseudoscientific movement. True, the opening montage did bring back a bit of that anxiety that this was going to be a “tell both sides” bit of false balance in that it included J.B. Handley blathering and Jenny McCarthy spewing her same false dilemma of measles versus autism. (She’d choose the measles, of course.) I was able to forgive that, because it’s very clear that the producers were just setting up the story. The show then launched straight into a birth and a list of the vaccines that children get, with Melinda Wharton of the CDC and Paul Offit pointing out how much good vaccines do, how we no longer see diseases that once killed thousands or even milions.