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The fine line between quality improvement and medical research

Quality

As I’ve mentioned before, the single biggest difference between science-based medicine (SBM) and what I like to call pseudoscience-based medicine, namely the vast majority of what passes for “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” is that SBM makes an active effort to improve. It seeks to improve efficacy of care by doing basic and clinical research. Then it seeks to improve the quality of care by applying the results of that research to patient care. Yes, the process is complicated and messy, and it frequently doesn’t progress as fast as we would like it to. Sometimes it goes down blind alleys or takes wrong turns, such as when a treatment is adopted too rapidly and determined later to be ineffective. Overall, however, improvement does occur, and it continues to occur. New treatments that work better are discovered. Old treatments that don’t work as well (or that don’t work at all) are abandoned.

There is, however a blurry line between what constitutes medical research and what constitutes quality improvement (QI). A couple of years ago, in one of those unexpected turns that a career can take, an opportunity presented itself for me to become co-director of a statewide quality improvement consortium for breast cancer care in my state. As I’ve alluded to before, it was a case of unexpectedly being in the right place at the right time, of seeing an opportunity and being willing to take it. How I ended up making quality improvement a large part of my career is unimportant. What is important is that it puts me in a unique position among all the other SBM contributors to discuss the interface between science and quality. (It’s also important that I lay down a disclaimer here that this post represents my opinion and my opinion alone; it does not represent the views of the QI with which I’m affiliated, my cancer center, or my university.) In particular, there are ethical considerations that are not obvious, apparently even to someone as brilliant as Steven Pinker, who Tweeted yesterday:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Quality Improvement

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Eric Merola and Ralph Moss try to exhume the rotting corpse of Laetrile in a new movie

Note: Some of you have probably seen a different version of this post fairly recently. I have a grant deadline this week and just didn’t have time to come up with fresh material up to the standards of SBM. This left me with two choices: Post a “rerun” of an old post, or recycle something. I decided to recycle something for reasons explained in the first paragraph of this post.

As I was deciding what to write about this week, I realized that, surprisingly, there is precious little on Science-Based Medicine about the granddaddy of modern cancer quackery, Laetrile. Given that the final nails were placed in the coffin of the quackery that was Laetrile more than 30 years ago in the form of a clinical trial that didn’t show a hint of a whiff of benefit in cancer patients, many of our younger readers might not even know what Laetrile is. But, as I explained when I wrote about Stanislaw Burzynski’s early years in the 1970s, which happened to be they heyday of Laetrile, in cancer quackery everything old is eventually new again, and Laetrile is apparently soon to be new again. True, it’s never really disappeared completely, because, again, no matter how discredited a cancer quackery is, someone somewhere will keep selling it and some poor cancer patient somewhere will be taken in. In any case, it occurred to me that we at SBM have discussed the politics of Laetrile. Indeed, Kimball Atwood once referred to it as the “the most lucrative health fraud ever perpetrated in the United States.” Moreover, Kimball makes a convincing case that the Laetrile controversy was an important precursor that laid the groundwork for advocates of “alternative medicine”—or, as it later became known, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine—to successfully lobby for the founding at the National Institutes of Health of what later was named the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). However, there didn’t appear to be a post dedicated to discussing Laetrile itself, and something happened last week that allows me to rectify that situation.

So how is Laetrile about to become new again? Remember our old buddy Eric Merola? He’s the guy who made two—count ’em—two conspiracy-laden, misinformation-ridden, astonishingly bad bits of “great man” propaganda disguised as documentaries about a Houston cancer doctor peddling unproven cancer treatments and charging his patients tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being under his care while receiving this magic elixir, known as antineoplastons. Over the last several months, ever since he unleashed Burzynski: The Sequel on an unprepared and uninterested world, Merola has been hinting about his next project. Given Merola’s involvement in Zeitgeist: The Movie and his primary role in throwing together two hack propaganda pieces that were so blatantly worshipful of Burzynski that Leni Riefenstahl, were she still alive and able to see them, would have told Merola to cool it with the overheated hero worship and portrayal of his movie’s subject as a god-man a bit, I knew his next movie would be more of the same. I also knew it would not be about Burzynski.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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