Articles

Pharmacists Selling Snakeoil

snake-oil

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.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Gene: An Intimate History

A superb writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee's books are easier to read than his name is to spell

A superb writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s books are easier to read than his name is to spell

Six years ago I reviewed Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It was hands-down one of the best books I have ever read on a medical topic. Now he’s done it again. His new book is titled The Gene: An Intimate History.

Mukherjee is a superb writer. Much of what I said about his first book applies equally to his second, so I will quote myself:

It is a unique combination of insightful history, cutting edge science reporting, and vivid stories about the individuals involved: the scientists, the activists, the doctors, and the patients. It is also the story of science itself: how the scientific method works…

Beautifully written and informative

Reads like a detective story with an exciting plot.

He links this second book to his first by pointing out that cancer is an ultimate perversion of genetics, and that studying cancer means also studying its obverse: normalcy. He gives the subject a human face by interspersing anecdotes from his own family’s struggles with mental illness and its connection to inherited genes. He sets out to tell the story of the birth, growth, and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the gene. He says it is one of three destabilizing ideas that have transformed science: the concept that irreducible units underlie matter (the atom), digitized information (the byte or bit), and biological information (the gene). He explains how the consequences of these ideas have transformed our thinking, our language, our culture, politics, and society. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, History, Medical devices

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“Complementary and Integrative Health” at the VA: Integrating pseudoscience into the care of veterans

BattlefieldAcupuncture

I was originally going to write this post for the 4th of July, given the subject matter. However, as regular readers know, I am not unlike Dug the Dog in the movie Up, with new topics that float past me in my social media and blog reading rounds serving as the squirrel. Then I got a copy of the movie VAXXED to review last week, and before I knew it this post had been delayed two weeks. Never let it be said, though, that I don’t circle back to topics that interest med. (Wait, strike that. Sometimes, that actually does happen. It just didn’t happen this time.) This time around, I will be using documents forwarded to me by a reader as a means of revisiting a discussion that dates back to the early days of this blog, before discussing the broader problem, which is the infiltration of pseudoscientific “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) into VA medical centers.

The return of the revenge of “battlefield acupuncture”

Today’s topic is the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and its embrace of pseudoscience. VA Medical Centers (VAMCs) provide care for over 8 million veterans, ranging from the dwindling number of World War II and Korean War veterans to soldiers coming home now from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there have been problems over the years with VAMCs and the quality of care they provide, including a recent scandal over hiding veterans’ inability to get timely doctor’s appointments at VAMCs, a concerted effort to improve that quality of care over the last couple of decades has yielded fruit so that today the quality of care in VA facilities compares favorably to the private sector. Unfortunately, like the private sector, the VA is also embracing alternative medicine in the form of CAM, or, as its proponents like to call it these days, “integrative medicine,” in order to put a happy label on the “integration” of pseudoscience and quackery with conventional medicine.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Robotically-Assisted Acupuncture Brings Ancient Healing Technique Into the 21st Century

An acupuncturist and acupuncture anesthetist perform robotically-assisted acupuncture on a patient who has been feeling kind of tired lately

An acupuncturist and acupuncture anesthetist perform robotically-assisted acupuncture on a patient who has been feeling kind of tired lately

Developed over many thousands of years (or maybe a little less), what has come to be known as traditional Chinese acupuncture has proven capable of curing or at least ameliorating the symptoms of a variety of medical conditions. But one of its greatest strengths, the intimate connection between the practitioner and the acupuncture needle, is also one of its most significant weaknesses. Taking advantage of the robotic technology being used by surgeons to perform an increasing number of minimally-invasive procedures, cutting edge acupuncture providers are now able to provide relief for patients that were once felt to be either poor candidates or had failed to improve despite treatments with traditional acupuncture by hand. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Humor

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Should you try a “natural alternative” before medication?

Herbal remedies are often promoted as a substitute for drug therapies.

Natural and herbal remedies are often promoted as a substitute for drug therapies. But do they actually work?

The idea of taking medication can be frightening. And as consumers and patients that want to make our own informed health decisions, it’s understandable and even appropriate to question our physicians when they recommend drug treatments. We need to understand the rationale for any medication that’s recommended or prescribed, the benefits of therapy, the side effects, and if there are any other approaches that might be more appropriate. Dietary supplements and natural health products are widely marketed as being safe and effective, and are occupying more and more shelf space in pharmacies, usually right beside the pharmacy counter. Many of my patient encounters in the pharmacy have included a discussion on the merits of drug therapy, versus the supplements that may have flashy packaging and impressive claims of effectiveness.

One encounter from my time working at a local pharmacy still sticks with me. I met a new patient who was anxious and eager to get my advice. He’d been cautioned by his family doctor that he was on the borderline of being diagnosed with diabetes. He had come to the pharmacy seeking a supplement that could help him avoid diabetes and medication. Rather than recommend any supplement, I suggested that the best approach he could probably take would be to lose some weight and get some exercise – it could be more effective than any supplement or drug, and would definitely help his health. He agreed, and then asked me what supplement he could take that could help him with some weight loss.

This type of discussion occurs all the time, and seems more common when there’s a lack of trust in the physician, or when the goals of treatment aren’t understood. The patient, reluctant to accept the physician’s recommendation, heads to the pharmacy for what they believe is a second opinion. In some cases, the patient may question the physician’s advice: “All my physician wants to do is prescribe drugs,” is a statement I’ve heard more than once. In those that are reluctant to accept medical treatment, there’s often a willingness to consider anything that’s available without a prescription – particularly if it’s perceived as “natural.” Natural products and dietary supplements are thought to be gentle, safe, and effective, while medicine may be felt to be unnatural, harsh, and potentially dangerous. Yet when I explain to patients that there’s actually little evidence to suggest most supplements offer any meaningful health benefits, I am sometimes met with puzzled or dismissive looks. The supplement industry’s marketing has been remarkably effective, glossing over the fact that the research done on dietary supplements is overall unconvincing and largely negative when it comes to having anything useful to offer for health. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy

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Thinking With Your Emotions About Medicine

"Miracle" is an almost literal health halo.

“Miracle” is an almost literal health halo.

The mental pathway of least resistance, what psychologists often refer to as the “default mode” of human thought, is to go with our “gut feelings.” We evolved emotions, heuristics, and cognitive biases partly so that we could make quick judgments that are good enough and err on the side of survival.

This can be adaptive – if we smell something rotten we have an emotional disgust response and avoid it. We don’t have to make a calculation about the odds of getting sick from the rotten food vs the calories and nutrients we can derive from it, we just feel disgust and avoid it.

This apparatus, however, does not deal well with a complex technological civilization that contains things like marketing and social media. The low-energy cognitive process of doing what feels right is easily manipulated and often leads us astray. (more…)

Posted in: Commentary

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Diatomaceous Earth? No Thank You!

Would you eat this? It might look like a crunchy new breakfast cereal, but it's a close-up of diatomaceous earth, the fossilized microscopic skeletons of diatoms.

Would you eat this? It might look like a crunchy new breakfast cereal, but it’s a close-up of diatomaceous earth, the fossilized microscopic skeletons of diatoms.

Diatoms are unicellular algae, one of the two major classes of the phytoplankton that constitute the bottom of the food chain in oceans and freshwater. Diatomaceous earth is a soft, siliceous sedimentary rock containing the fossilized skeletal remains of diatoms. It has been used as a bug killer: it is hypothesized that the sharp particles physically cut up the insects and also damage their waxy protective layer, causing dehydration. It is also used as an abrasive, a filter, an anticaking agent, and in various other industrial and agricultural applications. It contains silica, mainly in the form of amorphous silicon dioxide but with some crystalline silica. Silica is dangerous when inhaled, causing lung disease in workers exposed to silica dust. Silicosis is the most common occupational disease worldwide.

Those are the indisputable facts. So far, so good. Now for the unsupported claims. Diatomaceous earth is being sold as a dietary supplement and is being promoted as “one of the cheapest and most versatile health products on the market.” One of the red flags for quack remedies is the claim that the remedy works for a long list of disparate ailments. Another is that the claims are supported only by testimonials, not by scientific studies. Another is the claim that it “detoxifies.” And most of those who claim it works just happen to have their own brand that they want to sell you. Diatomaceous earth fits the bill, on all counts. But just because it walks like a duck doesn’t mean we can summarily dismiss it. To be fair, we must examine the claims and the evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Reviewing Andrew Wakefield’s VAXXED: Antivaccine propaganda at its most pernicious

VAXXED

I’ve finally seen it. I’ve finally seen Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s “documentary” VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, and I didn’t even have to pay to see it! Now, having watched Wakefield and Bigtree’s “masterpiece,” I can quite confidently say that it’s every bit as accurate and balanced a picture of vaccine benefits and risks as Eric Merola’s two movies about the quack Stanislaw Burzynski and his Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering are about cancer and cancer research, The Beautiful Truth is about the Gerson protocol for cancer, Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days is about diet and diabetes, Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed is about evolution, and The Greater Good is about…vaccines! Of course, based on what I knew of the story, saw of the VAXXED trailer (which deceptively edited together statements by William Thompson), and have discussed about the efforts of Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Polly Tommey to use VAXXED as a tool in a publicity campaign to try to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines using the “CDC whistleblowerconspiracy theory (about which a primer can be found here), I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was actually surprised (slightly) at the manipulative depths to which this film sinks.

On the plus side, its production values are better than those Eric Merola’s films (although I, with no experience, could probably make a film with better production values than Merola), but that just makes it somewhat more effective propaganda. In my review and discussion of the movie and its claims, I will discuss the claims made by Bigtree and Wakefield as well as the movie as a movie. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation in this 91 minute documentary that I will only be able to hit the “high” points without going far, far beyond even a Gorski level of logorrhea in this post. Worse, there is a considerable amount of dishonest framing, in which actual facts and events are presented in a deceptive manner to tell a distorted narrative. Before that, though, let’s meet the key players.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The New Chiropractic. And I thought SBM had an uphill battle.

Sisyphus, our enervating mascot.  Join us!  We're tired.

Sisyphus, our enervating mascot. Join us, we’re tired!

Over at the Society for Science-Based Medicine we have Sisyphus as the logo on the website. Sisyphus, as you may know, is the Greek who had to push a boulder up a hill every day, the archetypal metaphor for futile labor. It was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek, but only a bit. As quackademia proudly expands I sometime feel we were overly optimistic. Perhaps it should have been Prometheus

But if SBM has it tough, it pales next to the work of Bruce Walker DC, an Australian chiropractor who is calling for The new chiropractic.

His goal is to remake chiropractic, turning it into an evidence-based spine specialty, abandoning all the pseudo-scientific baggage.

I wish him luck. He will need it. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Commentary, Humor

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FDA efforts to improve compounded drug safety upsets naturopaths

herbs-nd1
Favorite naturopathic treatments comprise pumping patients full of dubious mixtures by injection, including IV drips. Naturopaths also employ topicals (salves, ointments and creams), rectal, and vaginal suppositories, and oral medications, such as bio-identical hormone replacement therapy, all made from “natural” substances.

According to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP)

these nutritional, herbal and homeopathic remedies are compounded to meet unique patient needs and are not typically available from the large drug manufacturers that don’t make small batches of such specialized products.

Not to mention the fact that it is highly doubtful these questionable remedies could make it through the FDA drug approval process, which requires proven safety and efficacy.

The FDA’s recent steps to improve drug compounding safety is a welcome curb on these practices. Draft Guidance issued in April addresses both compounding for office use and by prescription. (“Office use” refers to creating a supply of a compounded drug to be used by a health care practitioner as needed, as opposed to compounding a drug per a specific prescription for an individual patient.) In June, the FDA also issued an Interim Policy on substances that can be used in compounding a drug. We’ll discuss how these affect naturopathic practice in a moment. (more…)

Posted in: Guidelines, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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