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Tai Chi versus physical therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: How CAM “rebranding” works

Tai Chi versus physical therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: How CAM “rebranding” works

“Complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently referred to as “integrative medicine” by its proponents, consists of a hodge-podge of largely unrelated treatments that range from seemingly reasonable (e.g., diet and exercise) to pure quackery (e.g., acupuncture, reiki and other “energy medicine”) that CAM proponents are trying furiously to “integrate” as coequals into science-based medicine. They do this because they have fallen under the sway of an ideology that posits a false dichotomy: To practice true “holistic” and “preventative” medicine, physicians and other health care professionals must embrace the pre-scientific, pseudoscientific, or anti-scientific ideas about medicine that underlie much of the “alternative medicine” being “integrated.”

Unfortunately, they’ve been largely successful over the last 25 years or so. From my perspective, the strategy that has been the most effective in mainstreaming quack practices as part of “integrative medicine” has been what I like to call the “rebranding” of practices that could and should be part of standard, science-based medicine. I’m referring, of course, to nutrition and dietary interventions, as well as lifestyle interventions, specifically exercise. To the extent that standard medicine might have undervalued such interventions over the past few decades, we practitioners of science-based medicine might be said, to some extent at least, to have brought this on ourselves. On the other hand, it is not as though doctors haven’t been advising our patients to quit smoking and moderate their drinking and to lose weight through altering their diet and exercising more for many decades. We do this because we know it works. For instance, when some naturopathic quack touts “curing” type II diabetes with a vegan diet plus exercise, we know that can work because we know that losing weight can normalize blood sugar values in many cases of type II diabetes. Heck, the Endocrine Society itself even says so, declaring “lifestyle optimization” as “essential for all patients with diabetes” and recommending that all patients with type II diabetes “strive to attain and maintain an optimal weight through a primarily plant-based diet high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, with limited intake of saturated fatty acids and avoidance of trans fats,” that they lose weight through physical activity, and get enough rest. A vegan diet just takes that dietary advice to an unnecessary extreme, and any supplements recommended are almost always unnecessary.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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CAM use and chemotherapy: A negative correlation

It turns out that the use of certain forms of CAM makes it less likely that breast cancer patients will receive the chemotherapy they need.

It turns out that the use of certain forms of CAM makes it less likely that breast cancer patients will receive the chemotherapy they need.

So-called “alternative” medicine is made up of a hodge-podge of health care practices and treatments based on beliefs that are unscientific, pre-scientific, and pseudoscientific. These modalities include practices as diverse as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, reflexology, reiki and other forms of “energy medicine” based on vitalism, chiropractic, and naturopathy, and that’s a short list of the quackery that falls under the rubric of the term “alternative medicine.” Unfortunately, this unscientific, pre-scientific, and pseudoscientific hodge-podge of treatments rooted in nonsense is rapidly being “integrated” into real medicine, thanks to an unfortunately influential movement in medicine whose members have been seduced into thinking that there might be something to them and view “integrating” them into medicine as means of practicing more “holistic” and “humanistic” medicine. This “integration” started out by being called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) but now among believers the preferred term is usually “integrative medicine,” largely because it eliminates the word “alternative,” which implies (correctly) that the modality is not real medicine, and “complementary,” which implies a subsidiary status, a status of being nice to have but not essential.

Particularly harmful is the hostility towards conventional medicine that often strongly correlates with use of alternative medicine. Indeed, some people even choose to rely on alternative medicine instead of real medicine to treat cancer. Unsurprisingly, the results of such a decision are generally not very good. Actually, they are almost always terrible. Very, very terrible indeed. Not surprisingly, the use of alternative medicine is associated with bad outcomes. Cancer patients who might have survived die because of it. It’s not as though it hasn’t been studied either, although the main studies I’m aware of tend to look at the bad outcomes in patients who choose alternative medicine. There is another question, and it’s one that a new study published in JAMA Oncology last week seeks to answer. It’s a study that briefly made the news, producing headlines like:
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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A Harris Poll on “Alternative Medicine”

One can only imagine how annoyed Twain would have been had he known about opinion polls.

One can only imagine how annoyed Twain would have been had he known about opinion polls.

Mark Twain popularized the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and polls and surveys.” (He may have said “statistics” at the end, but I think this version works as well.)

A new Harris Poll on “alternative medicine” nicely demonstrates some of the problems with polls. The biggest problem is how you frame the questions. You can dramatically affect the results of the poll by exactly how a question is phrased, which other questions come before or after the question, and the overall context of the poll.

In essence a poll is a two-way form of communication. While it is meant to derive information from the subjects of the poll, those subjects are also receiving information from the poll itself. That is the very reason for “push polling” – which is the practice of disguising campaigning messages as a poll. (“On a scale from 1-5, how much are you bothered by the fact that candidate X is a misogynist?”). Yes, Prime Minister has an amusing example of this practice in action.

Interpreting the results of a poll is also not straightforward. You have to know how the subjects of the poll interpreted the questions, and what factors might affect their response. (more…)

Posted in: Commentary

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April Fool Cannot Surpass SCAM

Stick some coffee up the tailpipe and you've got yourself some complementary and alternative auto care!

Stick some coffee up the tailpipe and you’ve got yourself some complementary and alternative auto care!

It’s April Fools’ day in the US of A. One of the internet traditions is to come up with a story that is weird or unlikely, but not so weird or unlikely that it is not believable, in order to fool people that the story is real.

I gave it the old SBM try, I really did, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted to come up with a SCAM therapy so weird, so unlikely, that I could not find an example of it actually being practiced.

It can’t be done. Like a Trump utterance*, you can’t invent a SCAM (Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine) that someone, somewhere, has already pulled out of, er, well, thin air and are using it on patients.

Of course, what would you expect given that many SCAMs were in fact, pulled out of, er, well thin air. Think chiropractic and DD Palmer, iridology by August von Peczely, and reiki by Mikao Usui. Making up fantastical stuff is what they do.

But even within the spectrum of pseudo-medicine there are those are practices and papers that are so bizarro they should be an April Fools’ joke. But are not. It may be a matter of taste, what one person considers wack-a-loon another would find imminently reasonable. There are certainly assigned delegates that prove that assertion. But even within the wack-a-loon world of SCAM, there are those practices and papers that are more wack-a-loon than others and should be April Fools’ jokes. Maybe it is like more unique. Unique is one of a kind, so something can’t be more one of a kind. More wack-a-loon? Such is the world of SCAM. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Medical devices, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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More drugs, more supplements, and potentially more problems

drugs and supplements

Early in my career I was fortunate to be offered a role as a hospital pharmacist, working on an inpatient ward along with physicians, nurses, and a number of other health professionals. My responsibilities included conducting a detailed medication review with each newly admitted patient. We would sit together, often with family members, going through what was sometimes a literal garbage bag full of medications, and documenting the drug, the dose, and the reason for use. I can’t remember the most medications I ever counted, but a dozen or more was normal. Some were taking medications four or five times per day, every day. Were all these drugs necessary? In many cases, no. They’d been started at different times, often by different physicians. Some drugs treated the side effects of other medications. Few had ever had a health professional document them all in a single list. There had rarely been an overall review for safety and appropriateness. Few patients knew the treatment goals of their medications. Often, they’d never been asked about their treatment preferences.

In addition to auditing every prescribed medication, I asked about vitamins, supplements and over-the-counter drugs. I usually encountered the same scenario – multiple products, often without any clear medical need. There were vitamins for “eyes”, tonics for “the blood”, and supplements believed to treat or prevent illness. There was regular (and sometimes dangerous) over-the-counter painkiller consumption. Sometimes all of these combinations were clearly antagonistic: concurrent laxatives and treatments for diarrhea, or sleeping pills taken along with stimulants. Worryingly, few had disclosed the use of many of these products to their physician beforehand.

Medication reviews were a tremendous amount of work – but enormously rewarding. It was not difficult to find one or more cases of drugs potentially causing harm, or situations with clear drug-drug or drug-supplement interaction. In some cases, it was the medications that had put them in the hospital in the first place. Working with the residents and medical staff we could usually find ways to simplify their regimen, often discontinuing one or more drugs, reducing the doses of others, and suggesting ways to cut their supplement and over-the-counter drug use – or at a minimum, reduce the risk that these products could cause problems. Not only did patients end up with simpler medication schedules, we were helping them feel better, too. Before every patient was discharged, they’d get a follow-up visit from me. I’d provide a detailed list of current medications with a simplified schedule designed to make medication use easier. We’d provide copies for them to take to the pharmacy and to any specialist. In many cases, patients were still on a long list of drugs. But we’d cleaved away the most harmful and unnecessary, trying to leave only the medications that were appropriate. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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The hijacking of evidence-based medicine

One of our heroes at SBM: John Ioannidis.

One of our heroes at SBM: John Ioannidis.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of John Ioannidis. So, I daresay, are pretty much all of the editors and regular contributors to this blog. (If you don’t believe me, just type Ioannidis’ name into the blog search box and see how many posts you find.) Over the last couple of decades, Ioannidis has arguably done more to reveal the shortcomings of the medical research enterprise that undergirds our treatments, revealing the weaknesses in the evidence base and how easily clinical trials can mislead, than any other researcher. Indeed, after reading what is Ioannidis’ most famous article, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False“, back in 2005, I was hooked. I even used it for our surgical oncology journal club at the cancer center where I was faculty back then. This was long before I appreciated the difference between science-based medicine (SBM) and evidence-based medicine (EBM). So it was with much interest that I read an article by him published last week and framed as an open letter to David Sackett, the father of evidence-based medicine, entitled “Evidence-based medicine has been hijacked: a report to David Sackett.” Ioannidis is also quoted in a follow-up interview with Retraction Watch.

Before I get to Ioannidis’ latest, I can’t help but point out that, not surprisingly, quacks and proponents of pseudoscientific and unscientific medicine often latch on to Ioannidis’ work to support their quackery and pseudoscience. They’ve been doing it for years. Certainly, they’re already latching on to this article as vindication of their beliefs. After all, their reasoning—if you can call it that—seems to boil down to: If “conventional” medicine is built on such shaky science, then their pseudoscience isn’t wrong after all, given that the same scientific enterprise upon which conventional medicine is based produces the findings that reject their dubious claims and treatments. Of course, whenever I hear this line of argument, I’m reminded of Ben Goldacre’s famous adage, seen in one form on Twitter here:

The adage can be generalized to all EBM and SBM as well. Just because big pharma misbehaves, EBM has flaws, and conventional medicine practitioners don’t always use the most rigorous evidence does not mean that, for example, homeopathy, acupuncture, or energy medicine works.

Still, when Ioannidis publishes an article with a title provocatively declaring that EBM has been “hijacked,” we at SBM take notice. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Is it ethical to sell complementary and alternative medicine?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is no longer fringe, and anything but the mom-and-pop image that manufacturers carefully craft. CAM is big business, and most Americans today take some sort of supplement. The impetus for my blogging (and tilting at CAM windmills) emerged from years spent working in a pharmacy with a heavy reliance on CAM sales. If it was unorthodox, this store probably sold it. Conventional drug products (the ones I was familiar with) were hidden off in a corner, and the store was otherwise crowded with herbal remedies, homeopathy, and different forms of detox kits and candida cleanses. All of this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard about in pharmacy school – so I started researching.

I looked at CAM from a scientific evidence perspective, the one I was taught in pharmacy school, using the same approach I’d take when assessing a new drug. Did the evidence support the claims made about these products, or not? The answers, as you might expect, were often the same. There was little or no credible evidence to demonstrate CAM had any meaningful benefits. I started blogging my own reviews as a way of documenting my own research, while offering some information to anyone on the Interwebs who might be searching for evidence.

Over time my blogging focus expanded, as I asked myself the inevitable questions: How could implausible products with no scientific backing even be approved for sale at all? I discovered the regulatory double-standard allowed for anything considered a dietary supplement (or in Canada, a “natural health product“) and the history and politics that have made CAM the “Wild West” of health care, with a marketplace that prioritizes a manufacturer’s right to sell over a consumer’s right to purchase a product that is safe and effective. Given the retail marketplace that’s been established by regulators like the FDA and Health Canada, I’ve turned my focus on to health professionals, who have an ethical responsibility to put patient interests above that of commercial interests. From a professional practice and medical ethics perspective, I have argued that health professionals that sell or promote CAM are on ethically shaky ground, and compromise the credibility of the profession.

Despite the lack of evidence that CAM (in general) offers any health benefits at all, it’s been remarkable to watch its popularity grow, to the point where even large pharmacy chains now sell aisles of products that are implausible and often highly questionable. Generally meeting these changes with a collective shrug, the pharmacy profession has even tried to lower its own ethical standards. While I do get the occasional encouragement from some of my peers, most just say “it’s business” or “the customer wants it, and these are legal products.” My argument today is CAM fails even this lower ethical bar. (more…)

Posted in: Ethics, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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The Fog of Medicine

autism biomed

Sometimes medicine is a little like this.

I often get called on to be a diagnostician. The referring doctor is uncertain what is going on in the patient, often a fever of unknown origin, and they call me to help figure it out. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

Making the correct diagnosis is not easy, even after 35 years. The classic phrase is the fog of war, but the fog of medicine is equally confusing. In retrospect sometimes a diagnosis becomes clearer, but in real time? It is so easy to be wrong and so difficult to be correct.

I remember the first case of my career. A patient developed neutropenia (low white count) from a sulfa antibiotic and over the next two weeks went into multi-organ system failure and died. At autopsy it was discovered that he had miliary tuberculosis. I totally missed the diagnosis, despite all the tests, including liver and bone marrow biopsies before he died.

A decade later a case was presented at conference about a patient with a fever who went into multi-organ system failure and died. At the time of the conference I had zero recollection of the case from a decade earlier, but knew this was a case of miliary TB based on the data presented, although it was far from a textbook case. After the conference the presenter let me know that it had been my case, the one I had missed years ago.

I was ten years wiser in my medical career and more aware of the subtleties and variations of disease presentation. Experience has made me a somewhat better diagnostician. Or so I hope. Making the diagnosis of a common presentation of a common disease should be simple, but patients rarely read the textbooks and we are more likely to see an uncommon presentation of a common disease, a common presentation of an uncommon disease, and most dreaded, an uncommon presentation of an uncommon disease. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking

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Is “harnessing the power of placebo” worthwhile to treat anything?

Placebonex
We frequently write about placebo effects here on Science-Based Medicine. The reason is simple. They are an important topic in medicine and, at least as importantly, understanding placebo effects is critical to understanding the exaggerated claims of advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently called “integrative medicine” (i.e., integrating pseudoscience with science). Over the years, I (and, of course, others) have documented how CAM advocates have consistently moved the goalposts with respect to the efficacy of their pseudoscientific interventions. As larger and better-designed clinical trials have been done demonstrating that various CAM therapies without a basis in science—I’m distinguishing these from science-based modalities that have been co-opted and “rebranded” as CAM, such as exercise and nutrition—have no specific effects detectable above placebo effects, CAM advocates move the goalposts and claim that CAM works through the “power of placebo” and do their best to claim that “harnessing” that “power of placebo” is a justification to use their treatments. It turns out, however, that when placebo effects are examined rigorously there’s just not a lot of there there, so to speak. Results are underwhelming, and trying to “harness the power of placebo” without an intervention that actually impacts the pathophysiology of disease can even be dangerous. That’s not to say that learning to maximize placebo responses (whatever they are) while administering effective medical treatments isn’t important; rather, it’s to point out that, by themselves, placebo effects are not of much value.

Unfortunately, none of this has stopped what Steve Novella refers to as the “placebo narrative” from insinuating itself into lay discussions of medicine. That narrative proclaims in breathless terms (as Steve put it) the “surprising power of the placebo effect” without putting it into reasonable perspective or even really defining what is meant by “placebo effect.” First, as we have tried to explain time and time again here, there is no single “placebo effect.” There are placebo effects. Second, the only really correct reference to “the placebo response” or “placebo effect” is the outcome measured in the placebo arm of a clinical trial. The problem is that, all too often, discussions of placebo responses conflate the placebo effect measured in a clinical trial with all the other various placebo effects that add up to the response that is measured in that trial. Those effects include reporting biases, researcher biases, regression to the mean, conditioning, and many other components that contribute to what is measured in the outcome of a clinical trial. Another common misconception about placebo effects is that they are somehow “mind over matter,” that we can heal ourselves (or at least reduce our symptoms) through the power of will and mind. This is not true. Placebo effects are not the power of positive thinking.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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On “integrative medicine” and walking and chewing gum at the same time

Walk and chew gum at the same time

I didn’t think I’d be discussing Dr. David Katz again so soon. In fact, when Mark Crislip (who clearly hates me, given how often he sends me links to articles like this) sent me a link to Dr. Katz’s latest article, “Cleaning the House of Medicine“, published—where else?—in The Huffington Post, that home for “reputable” quack-friendly bloviation since 2005, when I first read the article, my first reaction was that Katz must surely be trolling us here at SBM. At first, I wasn’t going to respond to him again. However, Katz’s article represents a very common misconception about science-based medicine that is worth refuting. It is not my intention to be arguing back and forth with Dr. Katz every couple of weeks, but I did think it worth one more round. I think you’ll understand why by the end of this post.

First, however, a brief recap is in order for readers who might not have been following the discussion over the last month or so. It all started a couple of weeks ago, when Jann Bellamy, in response to a special issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine edited by Katz and dedicated to making the case for integrative medicine in preventive medicine training, quite correctly discussed how “integrative medicine” is always all about the “potential.” Indeed, after having spent considerable sums of federal grant money studying the “integration” of pseudoscience into medicine with respect to preventive care, the journal couldn’t come up with any concrete examples how integrative medicine adds anything (other than quackery) to medicine. Dr. Katz, who is well-known in the world of quackademic medicine for his infamous 2008 speech in which he asserted that physicians need to use a “more fluid concept of evidence” in evaluating treatments, particularly “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), responded with another HuffPo article entitled “Science and Medicine, Fools and Fanatics: The ‘Fluidity’ of Woo“. In lieu of reasonable, science-based arguments, Dr. Katz’ article was little more than a rant that consisted mainly of outrage that mere mortals lacking his awesome academic credentials had had the temerity to question his awesomeness and dedication to science coupled with an accusation that we are just too rigid and simplistic in our thinking to understand the subtle complexities of how different standards of evidence must be applied to complex patients. Steve Novella and I both responded that we understand just fine, explained how doctors do this all the time without using quackery like naturopathy and homeopathy (both of which Katz has advocated), and pointed out his argumentum ad ignorantiam with respect to energy medicine.

There’s where I thought it would end. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. On Friday, Katz launched another broadside at us, couched in the form of an argument that medicine must “clean its own house” before worrying about his quackademic medicine. It’s something I hear often enough that I thought it would be worth responding to, even if Dr. Katz was indeed trolling us.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Academia, Quality Improvement, Surgical Procedures

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