I enjoy feedback from readers. Yes, there’s the regular hate mail accusing me of being a Big Pharma Shill. But there’s the occasional appreciative comment from someone that found a post helpful or informative. The most gratifying feedback is when someone tells me that something I wrote led to a more informed health decision. Often it’s because I was able to answer a question that they couldn’t find a science-based answer to. I’ve answered thousands of questions in my pharmacy career, and have only blogged a handful of them (so far). One of my most fascinating experiences was a stint working evenings in a pharmacy that happened to have a large “natural” health focus. It’s there I began to scrutinize alternative medicine more closely, because it was virtually all the store sold. Homeopathy, ear candles, copper bracelets and salt lamps were all for sale. If it was unproven, proven ineffective, or defied some law of physics or chemistry, this pharmacy probably sold it. But the customers loved these products. I was dumbfounded. Some would buy dozens of supplements, costing hundreds dollars per month, on the advice of their naturopath, treating some vague or non-specific complaints. Others swore by homeopathic remedies, for themselves and their pets. It was common to meet people who were treating conditions that either didn’t exist, or hadn’t been properly diagnosed, like naturopath-diagnosed “food intolerances” or “hormone imbalances”. There were also the occasional “pH balancing” advocates that insisted I was misguided and uneducated for reassuring them that their body’s pH was just fine, despite what their urine test strips were telling them. (more…)
I’m sad to report that Dr. Wallace (Wally) Sampson, one of the original authors at Science-Based Medicine, passed away on May 25th at the age of 85. Wally was a valued member of the SBM community, a mentor to many of us, and a tireless crusader against health fraud and pseudoscience in medicine. He carried the banner of defending science and reason within medicine for a generation, and his is one of the giant shoulders on which SBM currently rests. His contributions to this website can be found here.
Wally was fighting against health fraud back when it was still called health fraud, rather than “alternative medicine” or whatever the latest marketing term they have adopted is. I would often go to him for perspective on the long range trends in our struggle to promote science in medicine. He had put in the decades of service necessary to have such perspective.
I personally owe Wally a great deal for my own career battling medical pseudoscience. Wally was keen to identify and nurture new people interested in promoting science in medicine. As a much younger skeptic, prior to social media, when I was only running a new and obscure local skeptic group, Wally invited me to speak at conferences, and eventually to be one of the assistant editors for The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, a print journal of which he was the first editor (available online here). Such nurturing was not common in my experience. He gave me the experience and platform upon which I eventually built Science-Based Medicine.
Ron Rosedale, MD has devised a “powerful program based on the new science of leptin.” “Finally — the ultimate diet for fast, safe weight loss, lifelong health, and longer life…” He suggests it will prevent or improve high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and a host of other ills. He repeats the CAM canard that “doctors only treat symptoms” and claims that his diet corrects the underlying cause of obesity, premature aging, and many diseases. That underlying cause is hormone (leptin) dysfunction. His is essentially just another low carb diet, only with more fat and less protein than other versions. His recommendations are ridiculously elaborate and are not supported by good evidence. His diet extrapolates from basic science, is based on speculative hypotheses, and has never been tested to see whether it works and is safe, much less whether it is superior to other diets.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. He is doing what so many proponents of fad diets have done in the past, and he does it poorly. His book is a puerile effort compared to Gary Taubes‘ Good Calories, Bad Calories; Taubes at least marshaled an impressive mass of scientific data, presented a cogent argument, and ultimately acknowledged that more studies would be needed to test his recommendations. (more…)
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.
Who said anything about medicine? Let’s eat!
Who hasn’t seen or heard Hippocrates’ famous quote about letting food be your medicine and your medicine your food? If you have Facebook friends who are the least bit into “natural” medicine or living, you’ve almost certainly come across it in your feed, and if you’re a skeptic who pays the least bit of attention to what’s going on in the quackosphere you will almost certainly have seen it plastered on a picture as a meme, either using a picture of Hippocrates or pictures of plates of green, leafy vegetables, or both. I like to view the fetishization of “food as medicine,” to cite Hippocrates, as one of the best examples out there of the logical fallacy known as the appeal to antiquity; in other words, the claim that if something is ancient and still around it must be correct (or at least there must be something to it worth considering).
Of course, just because an idea is old doesn’t mean it’s good, any more than just because Hippocrates said it means it must be true. Hippocrates was an important figure in the history of medicine because he was among the earliest to assert that diseases were caused by natural processes rather than the gods and because of his emphasis on the careful observation and documentation of patient history and physical findings, which led to the discovery of physical signs associated with diseases of specific organs. However, let’s not also forget that Hippocrates and his followers also believed in humoral theory, the idea that all disease results from an imbalance of the “four humors.” It’s also amusing to note that this quote by Hippocrates is thought to be a misquote, as it is nowhere to be found in the more than 60 texts known as The Hippocratic Corpus (Corpus Hippocraticum).
But Hippocratic doctors clearly saw a difference between food and medicines. In fact, food was considered as a material that could be assimilated after digestion (e.g. the air was also food) and converted into the substance of the body. For example, food was converted into the different parts of the body such as muscles, nerves, etc. By contrast, the concept of medicines at the time was a product which was able to change the body’s own nature (in terms of humor quality or quantity) but not be converted into the body’s own substance. Thus a food wasn’t considered a medicine. A possible root of the food-medicine confusion is the following cryptic phrase found in the work On Aliment: “In food excellent medication, in food bad medication, bad and good relatively”.3 This text is nowadays attributed to the Hellenistic period, but was considered to be Hippocratic in Antiquity by Galenus in particular.
Now, it is certainly true that Hippocrates and his followers used diet to treat many illnesses, it’s not really clear what sort of success they had. However, this ancient idea that virtually all disease could be treated with diet, however much or little it was embraced by Hippocrates, has become an idée fixe in alternative medicine, so much so that it leads its proponents twist new science (like epigenetics) to try to fit it into a framework where diet rules all, often coupled with the idea that doctors don’t understand or care about nutrition and it’s big pharma that’s preventing the acceptance of dietary interventions. That thinking also permeates popular culture, fitting in very nicely with an equally ancient phenomenon, the moralization of food choices (discussed ably by Dr. Jones a month ago).
Unless you practice Nasal Cranial Release.
There are so many pseudo-medicines, it is hard to keep track. New variations appear, new combinations of old SCAMs occur, old pseudo-medicines wax and wane, although no pseudo-medicine ever dies. Except phenology? Maybe? I find a few phrenology sites on the web, but I cannot tell if they are real or satire.
There is an ongoing discussion in my family as to the greatest band of all time. The Who is THE correct answer, but really, bands do not have to follow the Pauli exclusion principle. There can be multiple greatest bands of all time, all existing simultaneously at the same place. Except that The Who is a little bit more greater than the others. Yes. More greater.
The same concept applies to SCAMs. Whose goofiness reigns supreme? Homeopathy? Reiki? Epigenetic Birth Control? They are all equally goofy, each in their own special way.
In my feeds I saw the announcement that “Anderson Chiropractic Announces Nasal Cranial Release Therapy“. I had never heard of Nasal Cranial Release Therapy. It sounds bad, turning humans into a PEZ dispenser, popping off the skull by way of the nose, a particularly horrific form of rhinotillexomania. It’s not that goofy. But close. (more…)
Brian Clement is a charlatan. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the State of Florida. I made two (which turned into three) attempts to get the state to take action against Clement or the Hippocrates Health Institute, where he serves with his wife Anna Maria Gahns-Clement as co-director. All of them failed. Brian Clement slithered through the cracks in Florida law each time.
Before we get into the details of Florida’s failure to act, a bit of history (and there is plenty of it) is in order.
In recent months, Clement’s sordid cancer quackery has been well-documented in the media as well as in the science “blogosphere”. (I’ve listed what I hope is a — but almost certainly isn’t — complete blog archive at the end of this post. Many of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] and other news reports are linked in these posts.) Most of the coverage has centered on two Canadian girls suffering from lymphoblastic leukemia whose parents pulled them from conventional cancer therapies, which gave them an excellent chance of survival, in favor of treatment at the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI), a sprawling spa in West Palm Beach, Florida, licensed as a massage establishment by the state.
Clement gave a talk in Canada, in 2014, claiming “we’ve had more people reverse cancer than any institute in the history of health care.” (“We” is the operative word here, because it later served as Clement’s ticket to avoid prosecution by the Florida Board of Medicine, as you shall soon find out.) The girls’ families were impressed.
Sadly, one of the girls, Makayla Sault, died earlier this year. The other, identified only as “JJ” in the media because of a publication ban, has returned to conventional treatment. However, her mother apparently remains under the influence of Clement: JJ is restricted to a raw foods diet and is still being followed, if that is the right word, by HHI. (more…)
One of the persistent themes of SBM is that CAM (complementary and alternative medicine, or integrative medicine) is nothing more than a marketing brand. Its recent popularity is not based upon new evidence or a changing paradigm of medicine as its proponents claim. Its popularity is increasing despite the lack of evidence for specific CAM treatments and despite a dedication to evidence-based medicine within the medical profession.
CAM is also modern mythology, which I guess all really effective advertising and branding is. It floats atop a number of demonstrably false marketing claims. One is that the popularity and use of CAM is surging. This is partly a self-fulfilling prophesy, and no doubt it is increasing, but the degree to which CAM is popular has been consistently exaggerated by proponents (largely as a way to justify its existence).
This myth is largely perpetuated by redefining CAM as needed, including things like prayer, massage, and taking vitamins. I suspect that praying for a sick loved-one has always been popular and doesn’t represent a trend toward CAM. When unequivocal alternative modalities are considered, their use is still tiny and not increasing. The most recent NIH survey found:
Use of acupuncture (1.1%), homeopathic treatment (1.7%) naturopathy (0.2%), and energy healing (0.5%) was miniscule.
Cervical dysplasia is a precancerous condition picked up by Pap smears. It is most often caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Mild cases may resolve spontaneously and can be followed by observation with frequent Pap smears, but cervical dysplasia can progress to cancer. The standard treatment is to remove the abnormal cells with a cone biopsy (using a knife) or a Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP) using a wire loop heated by electricity. Those procedures not only treat the disease, but they provide a pathology specimen that can be examined to rule out more serious or invasive disease. Both LEEP and cone biopsy are 85-90% effective in removing all the abnormal cells. If cancer is suspected, a cone biopsy is preferable because LEEP may damage the edges of the specimen and make it more difficult to interpret. Otherwise, LEEP is often preferred because it is less expensive and doesn’t require anesthesia or an operating room. I have discussed misguided attempts by alternative medicine practitioners to treat cervical dysplasia before.
Surgery is often perceived as scary and not “natural,” so it’s not surprising that a “natural” treatment has been devised to replace surgery. Escharotics are corrosive salves that get their name from the thick dry scab that they can produce called an eschar. The “natural” escharotic treatment alternative for cervical dysplasia involves applying a solution of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and zinc chloride. They claim that the solution selectively kills abnormal cells of the cervix while leaving healthy cells unaffected. That claim is almost certainly false, and the efficacy and safety of escharotic treatment has not been properly tested or compared to conventional treatment. (more…)
When I wrote a week ago about the sham that is “right-to-try”, one criticism (among many) that I made of these misguided, profoundly patient-unfriendly laws was that I have as yet been unable to find a single example of a patient who has managed to obtain access to an experimental therapeutic through such a law, much less been helped by it. So-called “right-to-try” laws, of course, claim to provide a mechanism by which patients with terminal illnesses can obtain access to experimental therapeutics not yet approved by the FDA but still in clinical trials. They are, as I’ve pointed out, a cruel sham, placebo legislation that makes lawmakers feel as though they’ve done something good but do nothing of substance for patients while providing them with false hope. The federal government through the FDA controls drug approval, which means that states can’t compel a drug company to provide a drug to a patient, and most drug companies would not want to risk jeopardizing approval of their drug, which is what could happen if they grant access to an investigational drug under right-to-try and the patient suffers an adverse event. After all, the success rate for drugs that have passed phase 1 (which is all that right-to-try requires) in phase 3 trials is only on the order of 9-12%, meaning that that’s the most optimistic probability that such drugs would benefit a patient. In reality, it’s almost certainly much, much lower.
Alone of all the regular contributors to this blog, I am a surgeon. Specifically, I’m a surgical oncologist specializing in breast cancer surgery, which makes me one of those hyper-specialized docs that are sometimes mocked as not being “real” doctors. Of course, the road to my current practice and research focus was long and involved quite a few years doing general surgery, so it is not as though I am unfamiliar with a wide variety of surgical procedures. Heck, I’m sure I could do an old-fashioned appendectomy, bowel resection, or cholecystectomy if I had to. Just don’t ask me to use the da Vinci robot or, with the exception of the case of a cholecystectomy, a laparoscope, although, given the popularity of robotic surgery, I sometimes joke that I really, really need to figure out how to do breast surgery with the robot. After all, if plastic surgeons are using it for breast reconstruction, surely the cancer surgeon should get in on the action.
Clinical trials of surgical procedures and placebo controls
I have, however, from time to time addressed the issue of science-based surgery, and this weekend seems like as good a time to do so again, given that I just came across an article in the BMJ reporting a systematic review of the use of placebos in surgical trials. It’s a year old, but worth discussing. Before I get to discussing the nitty-gritty of this particular trial, let me just note that the evaluation of surgical procedures for efficacy and safety tends to be more difficult to accomplish than it is for medications, mainly because it’s much harder to do the gold standard clinical trial for surgical procedures, the double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial. The two most problematic aspects of designing such an RCT in surgery, as you might imagine, are the blinding, particularly if it’s a trial of a surgical procedure versus no surgical procedure, and persuading patients to agree. I’ll deal with the latter first, because I have direct personal experience with it. (more…)