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We Should Abandon the Concept of “Alternative Medicine”

FALSE-DICHOTOMY-copyIn a recent editorial for the New York Times, Aaron E. Carroll argues, “Labels Like ‘Alternative Medicine’ Don’t Matter. The Science Does.” I agree with this headline thesis, but the details of his argument ironically show the harm that the so-called CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) movement has done.

Carroll starts out well, essentially pointing out that the division between “conventional” and “alternative” medicine, and the division between “Western” and “Eastern” medicine are false dichotomies. Despite this strong start, he muddles his way through the rest of his editorial.

The primary error he commits is to swing from a false dichotomy to a false equivalency, essentially saying that there is no difference between conventional and alternative practice or practitioners. In order to support this contention, however, he has to distort the facts beyond recognition.

In other words, Carroll commits the less-well-known false continuum logical fallacy. Let me explain.

The real differences between SBM and CAM

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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NCCIH and the true evolution of integrative medicine

NCCIH and the true evolution of integrative medicine

There can be no doubt that, when it comes to medicine, The Atlantic has an enormous blind spot. Under the guise of being seemingly “skeptical,” the magazine has, over the last few years, published some truly atrocious articles about medicine. I first noticed this during the H1N1 pandemic, when The Atlantic published an article lionizing flu vaccine “skeptic” Tom Jefferson, who, unfortunately, happens to be head of the Vaccines Field at the Cochrane Collaboration, entitled “Does the Vaccine Matter?” It was so bad that Mark Crislip did a paragraph-by-paragraph fisking of the article, while Revere also explained just where the article went so very, very wrong. Over at a blog known to many here, the question was asked whether The Atlantic (among other things) matters. It didn’t take The Atlantic long to cement its lack of judgment over medical stories by publishing, for example, a misguided defense of chelation therapy, a rather poor article by Megan McArdle on the relationship between health insurance status and mortality, and an article in which John Ioannidis’ work was represented as meaning we can’t believe anything in science-based medicine. Topping it all off was the most notorious article of all, the most blatant apologetics for alternative medicine in general and quackademic medicine in particular that Steve Novella or I have seen in a long time. The article was even entitled “The Triumph of New Age Medicine.”

Now The Atlantic has published an article that is, in essence, The Triumph of New Age Medicine, Part Deux. In this case, the article is by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, a senior editor at The Atlantic, and entitled “The Evolution of Alternative Medicine.” It is, in essence, pure propaganda for the paired phenomena of “integrative” medicine and quackademic medicine, without which integrative medicine would likely not exist. The central message? It’s the same central (and false) message that advocates of quackademic medicine have been promoting for at least 25 years: “Hey, this stuff isn’t quackery any more! We’re scientific, ma-an!” You can even tell that’s going to be the central message from the tag line under the title:

When it comes to treating pain and chronic disease, many doctors are turning to treatments like acupuncture and meditation—but using them as part of a larger, integrative approach to health.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, History, Medical Academia, Naturopathy, Science and the Media

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A Scientist in Wonderland

Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds. He went from practicing alternative medicine to questioning it, to researching it, to becoming its most prolific critic. I have long admired his work, and I finally met him in person when we were invited to speak at the same conferences. He shattered my stereotype of the stern, formal, self-important German “Herr Professor Doktor.” He was affable, unassuming, and funny; he was even a jazz musician. I wished I knew more about his history, and my wishes have been granted in the form of his new autobiographical book, A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

Edzard Ernst, the early years

Dr. Ernst was born in post-war Germany; his family had suffered greatly during the war and his uncle had been a general in the Waffen SS. He felt slightly ashamed to be German, and as a result he researched and wrote about Nazi health beliefs and medical atrocities so the history of their misdeeds would not be forgotten.

His father was a doctor, his mother an enthusiastic devotee of alternative medicine who subjected him to homeopathy, ice cold baths, and barefoot walks at dawn through wet grass. Early in life, Ernst began to manifest a tendency towards doubt and irreverence, along with an irrepressible sense of curiosity.

Music was his first love. He earned good money when he and his friends spent their summer vacation busking on the beach at St. Tropez, and he had been seriously considering a musical career until his mother persuaded him to study medicine. He earned an MD in Germany, in an environment where alternative medicine was unquestioningly integrated with mainstream medicine. He received hands-on training in acupuncture, autogenic training, herbalism, homeopathy, cupping, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, even leeches. His first job was in a homeopathic hospital where a colleague chose remedies by dowsing with a pendulum. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking

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Selling “integrative oncology” as a monograph in JNCI

pancreatic-cancer-diagnostics-l

Sometimes, it’s hard not to get the feeling that my fellow bloggers at Science-Based Medicine and I are trying to hold back the tide in terms the infiltration of pseudoscience and quackery into conventional medicine, a term I like to refer to as quackademic medicine. In most cases, this infiltration occurs under the rubric of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), which these days is increasingly referred to as “integrative medicine,” the better to banish any impression of inferior status implied by the name “CAM” and replace it with the implication of a happy, harmonious “integration” of the “best of both worlds.” (As I like to point out, analogies to another “best of both worlds” are hard to resist.) Of course, as my good buddy Mark Crislip has put it, the passionate protestations of CAM advocates otherwise notwithstanding, integrating cow pie with apple pie doesn’t make the cow pie better. Rather, it makes the apple pie worse.

In any case, over the last three months, Steve Novella and I published a solid commentary in Trends in Molecular Medicine decrying the testing in randomized clinical trials of, in essence, magic, while I managed to score a commentary in Nature Reviews Cancer criticizing “integrative oncology.” Pretty good, right? What do I see this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (or JNCI, as we like to call it)? An entire monograph devoted to a the topic, “The Role of Integrative Oncology for Cancer Survivorship”, touting integrative oncology, of course. And where did I find out about this monograph? I found out about it from Josephine Briggs, the director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) herself, on the NCCAM blog in a post entitled “The Evidence Base for Integrative Approaches to Cancer Care“, in which she touts her perspective piece in the JNCI issue entitled “Building the Evidence Base for Integrative Approaches to Care of Cancer Survivors.” In an introductory article, Jun J. Mao and Lorenzo Cohen of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Abramson Cancer Center, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, respectively, line up this monograph thusly:
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia

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In the Spirit of Choosing Wisely

Oh, loneliness and cheeseburgers are a dangerous mix.
– Comic Book Guy

Same can be said of viral syndromes and Thanksgiving. My brain has been in an interferon-induced haze for the last week that is not lifting anytime soon. Tell me about the rabbits, George. But no excuses. I have been reading the works of Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds. (Really, really like the Miriam Black books). Writers write and finish what they start and only posers use excuses for not completing their work.

Recently I attended an excellent Grand Rounds on some of the reasons doctors do what they do. Partly it is habit. We learn to a certain way of practice early in our training and it carries on into practice and it is not always best practice. Patients also learn from us and have expectations on what diagnostics or treatments they should receive, and that too it is not always the best practice.

So to educate physicians and patients, the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) started the Choosing Wisely initiative. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Critical Thinking, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Quality Improvement

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The false dichotomies of CAM and “integrative medicine”

Falsedichotomy

A lot of medical specialties have throwaway newspapers/magazines that are supported by advertising and somehow mysteriously managed to show up for free in the mailboxes of practitioners. In my case, I’ve found myself on the subscription list for such papers about oncology, but also general surgery (I’m Board-certified as a general surgeon). When I have to recertify in about three years, it will be as a general surgeon, which was really fun to try to do last time after having specialized as a breast cancer surgeon, and will likely be even more fun next time, when I will be 10 years further out from my general surgery and surgical oncology training. In any case, that must be why, no matter where I end up working, sooner or later I end up receiving General Surgery News (GSN).

As throwaway professional newspapers go, GSN is not bad. However, occasionally it publishes op-ed articles that make me scratch my head or even tick me off with their obtuseness. Lately, apparently, it’s started some blogs. The one in particular that is the center of attention for this post is by Victoria Stern, is called “The Scope” and is billed as “exploring the lesser known sides of surgery.” Of course, it’s a bit odd that some of the first posts on this blog are about work hour restrictions and whether they leave new surgeons unprepared to practice surgery, the debate over breast screening, and what it takes to train expert surgeons, none of which are exactly “lesser known sides of surgery.” Work hour restrictions, in particular, have been discussed in surgery journals, at conferences, and among surgeons ad nauseam, particularly whether we are training a generation of surgeons unable to deal with the rigors of practicing surgery in the real world.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Ethics

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Lemons and Lyme: Bogus tests and dangerous treatments of the Lyme-literati

Tick

It’s that time of year when every day I can expect to see at least one patient with a concern about Lyme disease. In Lyme-endemic regions such as Western Massachusetts, where I practice pediatrics, summer brings a steady stream of children to my office with either the classic Lyme rash (erythema chronicum migrans, or ECM), an embedded tick, a history of a tick bite, or non-specific signs or symptoms that may or may not be due to Lyme disease. Sometimes the diagnosis is relatively straightforward. A child is brought in after a parent has pulled off an engorged deer tick, and there is a classic, enlarging ECM rash at the site of the bite. More often the presentation is less clear, requiring detective work and science-based reasoning to make an informed decision and a diagnostic and therapeutic plan based on the best available evidence. Depending on the story, the plan may include immediate treatment without any testing (as in the straightforward case described above), immediate testing without treatment pending test results, or waiting as we watch and see how a rash progresses before doing anything. An example of this latter course of action would be when a patient comes in with a pink swelling at the site of a new tick bite. In this case, it may not be clear if the swelling is a Lyme rash or simply a local reaction to the bite, a much more common occurrence. The classic ECM rash (an enlarging, red, circular, bull’s-eye rash at or near a tick bite) typically develops 1-2 weeks after a tick bite, but can occur anywhere from 3-30 days later. It then expands and darkens over another 1-3 weeks before fading. This classic rash is not the most common rash of Lyme disease, however, as it occurs in only about 30% of cases. Instead, the rash may be uniformly pink or red (or even darker in the center) without the target-like appearance, or may be a linear rash, expanding outward from the tick bite site. In the case of a patient who comes in with a vague, pink swelling within a day few days of a tick bite, we will typically wait and see what happens to the rash. If it is a local reaction, it will likely resolve within another few days. With Lyme disease, the rash will continue to enlarge and declare itself as an ECM rash. Another unclear and not uncommon situation is when a patient comes in with non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, musculoskeletal pains, and headache. If warranted by the history and the physical exam, we may in this case order Lyme testing. This may not give us an answer even if the patient has Lyme disease, because results are often negative in the first few weeks of the disease. In this case, if symptoms persist or evolve, we will repeat the testing in another few weeks at which point true Lyme disease will test positive and can then be treated. The good news is that the treatment of Lyme disease, particularly in the early, localized phase of the disease, is extremely safe and effective with a 14-day course of antibiotics. The testing is also relatively straightforward, with very good sensitivity and specificity when performed correctly. And this is where the bad news comes… (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Science and Medicine

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VacciShield: Pixie dust for an imaginary threat

vaccishield

I know by now I shouldn’t be, but I am still amazed by how readily so many people buy into the seemingly endless array of bogus sCAM nostrums. Many are marketed and hawked for the treatment or prevention of diseases that are poorly managed by science-based medicine. There are countless examples of dietary supplements that are purported to effectively treat back and joint pains, depression, anxiety, autism, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue; the list goes on and on. The lure for these treatments is at least understandable and, although frustrated that scientific literacy and rational thought loses out, I empathize with the desire to believe in them. On the other end of the spectrum is the even more ethically corrupt substitution of safe and effective treatments with products that are not. I encountered what I find to be possibly the most frightening and dangerous example of this recently at my practice. A family new to the area called to schedule a routine health-maintenance visit for their 5-year-old daughter. When our nurse reviewed the medical records the mother had faxed over, she noted that the child was unimmunized and explained to her that she would need to begin catch-up vaccinations. The mother matter-of-factly stated that her daughter was actually fully vaccinated with a vaccine alternative. She had received a series of homeopathic vaccines from a naturopath. I am not going to discuss this egregious example of sCAM here, though it was addressed in previous SBM posts.1,2 Instead I’d like to focus on another part of the sCAM spectrum. Here lies a form of sCAM that, in some ways, is even more difficult for me to comprehend. These are products invented, marketed, and sold solely for the treatment or prevention of fictitious diseases or problems that exist only in the realm of fantasy. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Nutrition, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Infant Gastroesophageal Reflux

By now, regular SBM readers should be aware of the Choosing Wisely initiative. Just in case, Choosing Wisely is a campaign developed by the ABIM Foundation to bring together experts from a variety of medical specialties in order to identify common practices that should be questioned by patients and providers, if not outright discontinued. Their ultimate goal was not to establish treatment guidelines or dictate care, but to foster discussion. As I’ve written about in a prior post on the overuse of antibiotics in pediatrics, it doesn’t appear to have caught on. I routinely ask colleagues, residents and students if they are aware of it, and am frequently disappointed by their response.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a list of five questionable practices back in February of 2013 and I loved it. All five are important:

  1. Stop treating viruses with antibiotics
  2. Stop prescribing and recommending cough and cold medicines for young children
  3. Stop routine use of CT scans for minor head injuries
  4. Stop routine use of neuroimaging for simple febrile seizures
  5. Stop routine use of CT scans for abdominal pain
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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What’s in a name?: NCCAM tries to polish a turd

turdpolish

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on its tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig.

You can paint a turd red, but it’s still a turd.

There’s a colloquial phrase commonly used to describe an effort to sell or promote something that is so inherently awful or at least so flawed as to be unsalvageable without either a radical rethinking or such a major overhaul that it would be impractical or impossible to do: Polishing a turd. In this, advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) have been very successful. Mark Crislip, in his usual inimitable fashion, just reminded us why CAM is a turd that needs polishing. Unfortunately, on Friday, I learned that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine unveiled a proposal to help it be more efficient in polishing the turd that is CAM through the clever use of language, and it wants your feedback. There were lots of other things that happened over the last few days that tempted me to write about them that will likely have to appear over at my not-so-secret other blog, but this one caught my attention and held it, given that it goes to the very heart of the deceptive use of language that is at the heart of giving CAM the appearance of legitimacy. In this specific case, NCCAM wants a new name. Dr. Briggs wants to rename NCCAM the National Center for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health (NCRCI). (I have no idea why the abbreviation of the proposed new center name isn’t NCRCIH.) Here’s Dr. Briggs explaining the rationale for the proposal and urging feedback by June 6 at http://nccam.nih.gov/about/offices/od/comments. I urge you to watch the whole video, or at least read the transcript:

Thus does Dr. Briggs propose polishing the turd that is NCCAM.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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