Science and Medicine

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Patient Groups and Pseudoscience

Patients should get health information from doctors, not quacks.

Patients should get health information from doctors, not quacks.

The biggest challenge we face promoting high standards of science in medicine is not making our case to the community. Our case is rock solid, in my opinion, and backed by evidence and logic. There is no question, for example, that homeopathy is 100% bogus and should not be part of modern medicine.

Our challenge is that there are literally billions of dollars to be made selling fake medicine and dubious treatments. This means that unscientific practitioners have an immediate financial incentive to promote themselves and their treatments, and they will tirelessly do so, on any front they can find. Further, the stars of unscientific medicine have the resources to do so – to intimidate critics, cozy up to politicians, open centers in respected hospitals, and market their brand.

We simply don’t have the manpower to confront them on every front, and the mainstream scientific and medical communities are frankly just not paying enough attention. They are largely unaware that pseudoscience is infiltrating their profession right under their noses, or they have been lulled into thinking this is a small and benign phenomenon.

Patient groups

These many fronts in which science confronts pseudoscience include the media, hospitals, continuing education, journals, the marketplace, politics and regulation, and research funding.


Posted in: Health Fraud, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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Building a Case for CAM

[Editor’s note: Mark Crislip is taking a well deserved vacation from blogging, and James Thomas has kindly agreed to provide another guest post to fill the gaping need left in all of your lives. Enjoy!]

Building a case for complementary and alternative medicine. This shouldn't be hard!

Building a case for complementary and alternative medicine. This shouldn’t be hard!

According to the Orwellian-named National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, roughly 33% of adults aged 18-44 and about 37% aged 45-64 use some form of CAM. More disturbing is that 12% of children aged 4-17 used some form of CAM in the last 12 months. If there is good news, it is that the NCCIH takes a broad view of “complementary health approaches” including acupuncture, Ayurveda, biofeedback, chelation therapy, chiropractic care, energy healing therapy, special diets (including vegetarian and vegan, macrobiotic, Atkins, Pritikin, and Ornish), folk medicine or traditional healers, guided imagery, homeopathic treatment, hypnosis, naturopathy, non-vitamin, non-mineral dietary supplements, massage, meditation, progressive relaxation, qi gong, tai chi, and yoga. In fact these approaches range from the wacky (energy healing therapy, homeopathy) to the mainstream (massage, yoga) with nothing alternative about them. With more than 60 million Americans using some form of CAM, it is fair to ask if we can build a case for truly integrating CAM into mainstream medical practice.

So who are these people using CAM and just what are they using it for? CAM users can be found in almost every demographic but the largest cohort is white, female, and fairly well educated. A good deal of CAM is used for common and often vague conditions with back pain being the most commonly cited. But it is also used by cancer patients, for cardiovascular disease, and even for Alzheimer’s disease. The problem is that none of the CAM approaches are useful for any of these conditions; strike that, none of the CAM approaches are useful for anything at all much beyond placebo.

I’m going to keep this essay down to a more reasonable length than my earlier offerings (pauses here for the applause to fade) so I’m not going to talk much about most CAM “modalities.” Reiki is deconstructed here and here, or for those who just want a Crislipian good time, here. Homeopathy is eviscerated here. For the deeper dive go here, or for the full monte, here. If after that you still have questions about homeopathy you should probably get a hobby.

But wait, there’s more!

Chiropractic, and acupuncture, and hypnosis, and chelation, and, and…go to the masthead and enter the CAM of your choice in the box with the little magnifying glass. If some charlatan has offered it as a medical treatment, this is your gateway to good information about it. But (and that ‘but’ was your spoiler alert), none of it has much impact on any measurable medical condition. CAM does not shrink tumors, CAM does not dilate bronchi, CAM does not strip pounds of icky toxins out of your colon. Those claims and most others are easily dismissed by anyone with basic reasoning skills and the URL for Pubmed (here it is:

There are however, two arguments in favor of CAM that deserve a bit more careful consideration: electro-acupuncture for pain relief through the mechanism of stimulating endorphin release, and the more general argument that many patients have needs unmet by the medical mainstream, often psycho-social needs that do not have an ICD-10 (a type of diagnostic code) and for which no treatment infrastructure exists within the mainstream health care delivery system. These are the cases I’ll try to build today. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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Does acetaminophen during pregnancy raise the risk of behaviour problems?


In my career as a pharmacist I’ve answered a lot of questions about medication use in pregnancy. Pharmacists are among the most accessible health professionals, and we’re usually found near a wall of medicines and supplements.  Many don’t trust Dr. Google, and for good reason: There are conflicting answers online. When it comes to medication use in pregnancy and effects on the fetus, we have no perfect data. Since no-one is randomizing women to drug treatment or placebo, we must rely  on weaker, less definitive evidence. An appropriate response from a health professional will describe known risks and expected benefit, summarizing what we know, and how confident we are in that answer. One of the most popular drugs used in pregnancy is acetaminophen (sometimes called paracetamol or APAP), and commonly known by the brand name Tylenol. An emerging concern with acetaminophen is whether use during pregnancy raises the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related behavioural problems. While I covered this question once, back in 2014, there’s a new paper that’s putting this issue back in the news. From Evie Stergiakouli and colleagues is the paper, “Association of Acetaminophen Use During Pregnancy With Behavioral Problems in Childhood: Evidence Against Confounding“, published this week in JAMA Pediatrics. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Obstetrics & gynecology, Science and Medicine

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Dana-Farber Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Expansion

Dr. Sidney Farber, shown here not believing in reiki or reflexology.

Dr. Sidney Farber, shown here not believing in reiki or reflexology.

In June, an article in the Boston Globe covered yet another incursion of pseudoscience into a major academic medical center, this time at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Dana-Farber, located just a couple of miles from the library where I’m writing this post, has provided world-class care for children and adults with cancer since 1947. It’s kind of a big deal.

Sidney Farber, already known as the “father” of pediatric pathology, was the first person to induce remission in pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which had a 100% mortality rate up to that point. He then went on to earn the title of “father” of modern chemotherapy by also curing Wilm’s tumor, a rare pediatric cancer of the kidneys. Farber, who was featured in the phenomenal book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, would almost certainly be opposed the double standard being employed to justify quackery in the facility bearing his name (or anywhere else).

To Farber, a scientific approach to treating pediatric cancer patients was paramount, even to the point where he at first refused to initiate the combination therapy that would open the age of modern chemotherapy because he wanted to protect children from a potentially haphazard rush to cure them. He wanted strict scientific protocols in place and assurances that the evidence would be followed regardless of the outcome, so that the intense desire to find a cure for children that otherwise faced only suffering and death would not add to that suffering. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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In Pursuit of Patient Safety

[Editor’s note: With Dr. Gorski enjoying a vacation to recharge his batteries, we present a second offering from contributor James Thomas. Enjoy!]

From the

This might hurt a little…
From the Wellcome Trust Image Librar via the Wikimedia Commons

Advocates of CAM* (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) have long argued that mainstream medicine is a dangerous undertaking using toxic drugs and invasive interventions that often do more harm than good, while the various quackeries huddled under the CAM umbrella are said to use natural interventions that aid the body in healing itself. A recent BMJ article naming medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the United States was trumpeted as proof of that claim and predictably enough unleashed a maelstrom of pearl-clutching commentary from the CAMsters. David Gorski has already deconstructed the ‘medical error is the third leading cause of death’ argument comprehensively. Rather than re-till that ground, I will use this essay to examine the allied accusation that medicine has little interest in the actual inherent dangers of medicnie, and less interest still in addressing those dangers. (more…)

Posted in: History, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Facial Nerve Palsy

An infant with a left facial nerve palsy

An infant with a left facial nerve palsy

There are numerous medical conditions that are seemingly designed to allow proponents of “irregular medicine” to proclaim their treatments to be effective. These conditions tend to be chronic and subjective in nature, or to have waxing and waning courses such that a parent or patient might easily be fooled into assigning a causal relationship between a bogus intervention and a clinical improvement. Brief, self-limited maladies are also quite convenient for people with nothing to offer but false information and false hope. After a recent encounter with a patient, I’ve added a new one to the list: idiopathic facial nerve palsy.

What is idiopathic facial nerve palsy?

Although not the first to do so, facial nerve dysfunction resulting in the sudden and unexplained weakness of all muscles on one side of the face was most famously described by Scottish neurophysiologist Sir Charles Bell in 1830. Hence it is commonly, if not always accurately, referred to as “Bell’s palsy.” Since then our understanding of the condition has progressed considerably, thanks to scientific investigation and improved diagnostic testing. In particular, we have learned that many cases are the result of infection, with ear infections, various human herpes viruses, and the spirochete responsible for Lyme disease being the most common culprits in children. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Pharmacists Selling Snakeoil


Edzard Ernst published an excellent editorial today addressing the question of why pharmacists sell bogus products. Our own resident pharmacist, Scott Gavura, expressed similar points here on SBM a year ago. Their points are worth emphasizing and expanding upon.

Professional ethics

The explicit premise of both editorials is that pharmacists, like physicians, are health care professionals. Being a professional means adhering to certain professional standard of quality control and ethical behavior. A profession is essentially a contract with society – the profession gets exclusive rights to certain commercial behaviors, and in return promises to maintain adequate quality control and to act in the best interests of society and their individual clients.

When a profession puts their own commercial interests ahead of society or their individual customers, they have violated that contract.

There are multiple layers of regulation to maintain quality and ethical standards in the health care professions. Once a profession is licensed, they basically self-regulate, with members of the profession establishing the standard of care. Standardized testing designed by the profession is used to establish competence or specialized expertise.


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Horses, Zebras, and the Availability Heuristic

It was a chevrotain.

It was a chevrotain. (Josh More, Flickr)

During a particularly difficult shift early in my career, I spent the better part of two hours at the bedside with a patient’s family discussing the unexpected discovery of a large tumor in their child’s brain. The implications of the finding were grave, and the family was understandably devastated. I was just a few years out of residency and this was the first time I had made such a life altering diagnosis by myself, and it was by far the hardest news I had ever had to break to a family. Needless to say it was an experience that I will never forget, and one that has influenced my approach to medicine ever since.

The diagnosis was a surprise to everyone. There were of course red flags that appropriately led to the ordering of an MRI, but I really didn’t expect it to find anything. It wasn’t based on the fear of a lawsuit or the discomfort with uncertainty, influences that dictate the practice of medicine far too often, with the latter being considerably more of a problem (in my opinion). There was enough to support embarking on an encephalic expedition, but nothing so blatant as to really raise my suspicions.  My guard was down and my emotional response to the situation was intense. Later, after care of the patient had been transferred to the pediatric oncology service, my introspective nature took over.

The sound of approaching hoofbeats

In medical school, there is an old adage often passed down to learners by seasoned physicians that serves to rein in an overly broad differential diagnosis, particularly when it includes increasingly unlikely etiologies. When one hears the sound of approaching hoofbeats, the inexperienced students are cautioned, one should expect to see horses rather than zebras. The world of medicine rarely mimics an episode of House, M.D. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Why Science-Based Medicine Matters

A child with smallpox; the cost of unscientific medicine. This is why science-based medicine matters.

A child with smallpox; the cost of unscientific medicine. This is why science-based medicine matters.

The regular contributors at Science-Based Medicine (SBM) work diligently every week to explore the world of science-based medicine and the gauzy, nebulous netherworld of fantasy-based medicine. They shine light on the leading edge of medical science, dissect the nuances of mainstream care, expose the misconceptions and sometimes the frank deceptions of so-called alternative medicine. Launching SBM on January 1, 2008, sbmadmin (Steven Novella?) described the mission of the blog as: “scientifically examin[ing] medical and health topics of interest to the public [including] reviewing newly published studies, examining dubious products and claims, providing much needed scientific balance to the often credulous health reporting, and exploring issues related to the regulation of scientific quality in medicine.” He went on to propound an elegant yet simple core philosophy that “safe and effective health care is critical to everyone’s quality of life; so much so that it is generally considered a basic human right.”

This last deserves, I think, especially careful consideration. Enshrined in the aspirational manifesto of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, is the claim for all people to inherent and inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And while Jefferson used the phrase in the context of personal political freedoms, health is central to the exercise of those rights. It is the role of medicine to secure health, to provide a structure and a system by which all can live life as long and as free from disease and disability as our individual circumstances allow. (more…)

Posted in: History, Science and Medicine

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Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Snake Oil

noel edmonds
Noel Edmonds is a game show host, famous for Britain’s version of Deal or No Deal. As far as I can tell, he has no medical or scientific qualifications at all. This unfortunately has not stopped him from using his celebrity status to offer dubious medical advice via his Twitter feed. Such is the world in which we live.

Edmonds tweeted, referring to the EMP Pad:

A simple box that slows ageing, reduces pain, lifts depression and stress and tackles cancer. Yep tackles cancer!

This Twitter-brief statement packs in many red flags for quackery and snake oil: such as a simple device that can tack a wide range of medical conditions that do not appear to share a common cause or mechanism. The word “tackle” is vague, but implies either a cure or at least a significant treatment. Anyone claiming to treat or cure cancer deserves close scrutiny.

In response, cancer patient Vaun Earl tweeted:

I think Noel Edmonds should stick to what he’s good at. Presenting quiz shows and beard trimming, rather than curing cancer.

To which Edmonds responded:

Scientific fact-disease is caused by negative energy. Is it possible your ill health is caused by your negative attitude? #explore.


Posted in: Cancer, Medical devices, Science and Medicine

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