One of my favorite television shows right now is The Knick, as I described before in a post about medical history. To give you an idea of how much I’m into The Knick, I’ll tell you that I signed up for Cinemax for three months just for that one show. (After its second season finale airs next Friday, I’ll drop Cinemax until next fall.) The reason why I’m bringing up The Knick (besides I love the show and need to bring it up at least once a year) is because an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker entitled “Tough Medicine“, which is a commentary based on a new book on cancer by a veritable god of cancer research, Vincent T. DeVita, Jr., immediately resonated with a storyline in this season of The Knick. I haven’t yet read The Death of Cancer: After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer Is Winnable–and How We Can Get There by Vincent T. DeVita and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, but I want to. I can tell, though, that there will be parts of the book I find annoying just from Gladwell’s take on it, which approvingly describes DeVita as railing against the cautiousness and incremental nature of today’s cancer research. To give you an idea of where Gladwell’s coming from, I note that his article shows up in the title bar of my web browser not as “Tough Medicine” but rather “How To Cure Cancer”, even as the title on the web page itself remains “Tough Medicine”. On the other hand, the article does conclude with Gladwell demonstrating a better understanding of the disadvantages of what DeVita is proposing than it seems that he will in the beginning. In fact, it is Gladwell who is more reasonable than his subject, although he does appear share DeVita’s apparent assumption that potentially all cancer patients are savable if only we try hard enough. (more…)
Oregon Health Plan (OHP), the state’s Medicaid insurer, will no longer cover planned home and birth center births for women whose pregnancies aren’t classified as low risk, based on newly-established criteria. The Health Evidence Review Commission (HERC), a group of experts designated by the state, came up with criteria that will exclude women with a substantial list of conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, previous cesarean section, multiple gestation (more than one fetus), and various complications in previous pregnancies. Feelings ran high on both sides of the issue, which was described as the most contentious ever to come before the HERC.
The HERC’s decision was based on an exhaustive 100-page evidence review; a review, according to them, hampered by the low quality of the evidence on the safety of planned out-of-hospital births. Actually, there is a paucity of evidence altogether. Studies and statistics from other countries, like the Netherlands, were of limited utility because those countries have more stringent midwifery education and training requirements and non-hospital births are better integrated into the health care system.
Most planned out-of-hospital births in Oregon are attended by what are known as direct-entry midwives (DEM), as opposed to nurse midwives, and a few naturopathic doctors. (We’ll look at the many variations of midwifery in a minute.) Since OHP pays for 23% of Oregon births, the economic impact on direct-entry midwives could be substantial. This effect will be amplified when other insurers, who are expected to follow OHP’s new criteria, change their own coverage rules. (more…)
Is it ever ethical for a physician to prescribe a treatment to a patient that they know to be entirely without efficacy? Is it ever possible to do this without deceiving the patient to some degree? I think the answer to both questions is a clear “no.”
Within the flipped reality of “alternative medicine,” however, it suddenly becomes acceptable to deceive patients and sell them worthless treatments, as long as the deception was minimally successful.
A recent editorial in Scientific American by Allison Bond addresses this question. She manages to hit upon many of the reasons placebo medicine is inappropriate, but her reasoning is a bit muddled and she comes, in my opinion, to the wrong conclusion. She wraps her commentary in an anecdote of a terminal patient for whom she cared who found relief from reiki. She concludes:
Of course, when it comes to treating patients with painful, life-threatening diseases, the goal of our care should be to lessen suffering, regardless of where such relief originates. A few months after Ms. W left the hospital, I learned that she had died, and the news hit me hard. I thought back to her treatment under our care and hoped that even among the misery, we had eased her suffering through our therapies—“alternative” or not.
Chelation with intravenous EDTA (disodium ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid) has long been used for heavy metal poisoning. It binds the metal ions and facilitates their excretion from the body. In recent years it has been used for many other indications that are not evidence-based, such as autism and coronary heart disease.
The Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) was done to assess the effectiveness and safety of EDTA plus high-dose oral vitamins for preventing second heart attacks in patients who had already had one. An article on The People’s Pharmacy website portrays the study as strongly positive. The Graedons, authors of the website, claim that science supports the use of chelation. They report that for every 12 patients undergoing chelation, one heart attack will be prevented over a five-year period. They cite a 5-year NNT (number needed to treat) of 16 for statin therapy and they conclude that:
EDTA chelation outperformed statins because fewer people needed to receive treatment to achieve a desirable outcome.
While it is both easy and fun to point out the inadequacies of unscientific modalities such as chiropractic and homeopathy, our goal at Science-Based Medicine is the application of a single standard to all medical practice, even if it stings a bit. We are far from perfect. While I firmly believe that most conventional healthcare professionals are good people who strive to provide the best care possible for their patients, I accept that there is room for improvement and pediatric medicine is certainly no exception.
In fact, one of the characteristics that best distinguishes conventional from so-called alternative medicine is the simple fact that we systematically attempt to recognize and correct our errors on an individual and system wide level. That we evolve in the light of new and better evidence, albeit sluggishly as a rule rather than an exception, allows me to sleep at night. There is no quality control in alternative medicine. There are only shifting trends in the marketing of nonsense to the curious, desperate, and gullible. (more…)
The idea that “natural” products are safe and effective has been so effectively marketed to us that many don’t recognize it as a fallacy. Much of the supplement industry is built around an appeal to nature. Supplements are described as natural, gentle, and “holistic”. Medicine, especially prescription drugs, is the opposite. They’re “chemicals”. They’re risky and dangerous – just look at that list of side effects! Supplements are packaged beautifully, have impressive claims, and are for sale at Whole Foods. Drugs are hazardous: They may come in a plain vial, with warning labels, detailed information sheets, and cautious statements about their effectiveness. Is it any wonder that many consumers, when faced with health concerns or medical issues, instinctively think of supplements as a safer alternative? Purveyors of supplements and alternative medicine have leveraged this fallacy so effectively that it’s even guided the regulations that allow their sale. Regrettably, the result is a marketplace that puts consumers’ interests last. The supplement industry has completely stacked the odds against the consumer, challenging their ability to make informed decisions about their health. Most supplements on the market have never been properly tested for safety or effectiveness. And those that have been tested have largely been shown to be ineffective – or in the case of products like vitamins, often unnecessary. And while there are undoubtedly some ethical companies out there, the industry is regularly revealed to resemble a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Despite this, the industry has gone from success to success – in terms of sales, at least. In 1994 supplement sales were about $4 billion in the US. It’s now a $37 billion industry that is remains only lightly regulated – or largely unregulated. With recent action taken against fraudulent products, there are more questions than ever about how to force the supplement industry to make consumer protection a priority. A new paper in Drug Testing and Analysis makes a provocative suggestion: Local and state governments already regulate another hazardous product: tobacco. Can lessons learned from the tobacco wars improve the safety of supplements? (more…)
If you have not heard of CRISPR yet, you should have. This is a truly transformative technology that allows for cheap and easy gene editing. It makes a powerful technology easily accessible.
Powerful biological technology, like stem cells to give another example, always seem to provoke profound hope and fear. The ability to manipulate human biology comes with it the hope of treating horrible and currently untreatable diseases. At the same time such technology provokes fear that it will be abused, or that it will violate the sanctity of what it means to be human.
As the public debate over stem cells seems to be fading into the background a bit (like IVF before it), debates over CRISPR and gene editing are likely to come to the forefront.
What is CRISPR?
Addiction is a puzzling phenomenon. Why do addicts persist in self-destructive behavior even after it has lost them their jobs, their family, their health, and their self-respect? Do they have any control over their behavior? If so, why don’t they control it? If not, why not? Two recent books shed light on these questions: The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease, by Marc Lewis, and The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig.
Lewis is a neuroscientist and former addict; Heilig is a physician and addiction researcher. Lewis is convinced that addiction is not a disease, but a habit created by the neural circuitry of desire in the course of its normal functioning. Heilig is convinced that addiction is a chronic disease like diabetes that can’t be cured but that must be managed by lifelong treatment.
While they disagree about whether addiction is a disease, they actually agree about almost everything else. They agree that we should reject the stigma of addiction as a kind of moral failing. They reject the hypotheses that addiction is a matter of choice or self-medication. They think current diagnostic labels are inadequate. They both try to integrate two levels of information: the case histories of addicts and the scientific knowledge from research. They are both skeptical of AA and of conventional rehab programs. They both support evidence-based treatments. They both think addicts are not all alike and that individual addicts will respond better to individualized approaches. (more…)