Posts Tagged placebo

Belief in Echinacea

Note: The study discussed here has also been covered by Mark Crislip. I wrote this before his article was published, so please forgive any repetition. I approached it from a different angle; and anyway, if something is worth saying once it’s probably worth saying twice.


Is Echinacea effective for preventing and treating the common cold or is it just a placebo? My interpretation of the evidence is that Echinacea does little or nothing for the common cold. Initial reports were favorable, but were followed by four highly credible negative trials in major medical journals. A Cochrane systematic review was typically wishy-washy  The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates it as only “possibly effective” commenting that

Clinical studies and meta-analyses show that taking some Echinacea preparations can modestly reduce cold symptom severity and duration, possibly by about 10% to 30%; however, this level of symptom reduction might not be clinically meaningful for some patients. Several other clinical studies found no benefit from Echinacea preparations for reducing cold symptoms in adults or children…

A review on the common cold in American Family Physician stated that Echinacea is not recommended as a treatment.

I have a friend who believes in Echinacea. She says for the last several years she has taken Echinacea at the first hint of a cold, and she hasn’t developed a single cold in all that time. I told her that if that was valid evidence that it worked, I had just as valid evidence that it didn’t. For the last several years I have been careful not to take Echinacea at the first hint of a cold, and I haven’t had a single cold in all that time either. So I could claim that not taking Echinacea is an effective cold preventive! I thought my “evidence” cancelled out hers; she said we would just have to agree to disagree.

A recent study looked at the effect of belief on response to Echinacea and dummy pills. “Placebo Effects and the Common Cold: A Randomized Controlled Trial” was published by Barrett et al. in the Annals of Family Medicine(more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine


This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word “doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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“CAM” Education in Medical Schools—A Critical Opportunity Missed

Mea culpa to the max. I completely forgot that today is my day to post on SBM, so I’m going to have to cheat a little. Here is a link to a recent article by yours truly that appeared on Virtual Mentor, an online ethics journal published by the AMA with major input from medical students. Note that I didn’t write the initial scenario; that was provided to me for my comments. The contents for the entire issue, titled “Complementary and Alternative Therapies—Medicine’s Response,” are here. Check out some of the other contributors (I was unaware of who they would be when I agreed to write my piece).

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Placebos as Medicine: The Ethics of Homeopathy

Is it ever ethical to provide a placebo treatment? What about when that placebo is homeopathy? Last month I blogged about the frequency of placebo prescribing by physicians.  I admitted my personal discomfort, stating I’d refuse to dispense any prescription that would require me to deceive the patient. The discussion continued in the comments, where opinions seemed to range from (I’m paraphrasing)  “autonomy, shmatonomy, placebos works” to the more critical who likened placebo use to “treating adults like children.”  Harriet Hall noted,  “We should have rules but we should be willing to break them when it would be kinder to the patient, and would do no harm.” And on reflection, Harriet’s perspective was one that I could see myself accepting should I be in a situation like the one  she described. It’s far easier to be dogmatic when you don’t have a patient standing in front of you. But the comments led me to consider possible situations where a placebo might actually be the most desirable treatment option. If I find some, should I be as dogmatic about homeopathy as I am about other placebos?

Nicely, Kevin Smith, writing in the journal Bioethics, examines the ethics of placebos, based on an analysis of homeopathy. Homeopathy is the ultimate placebo in routine use — most remedies contain only sugar and water, lacking a single molecule of any potentially medicinal ingredient. Smith’s paper, Against Homeopathy — A Utilitarian Perspective, is sadly behind a paywall.  So I’ll try to summarize his analysis, and add my perspective as a health care worker who regularly encounters homeopathy.

Posted in: Homeopathy, Medical Ethics

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This year The Amazing Meeting 9 (designated TAM9 From Outer Space) will be held in Las Vegas from July 14-17. If you have not registered, do it fast – this year the conference will likely sell out.

Among the many incredible speakers and events at TAM9 there will be a Science-Based Medicine workshop and an SBM panel discussion. The prominence of SBM at TAM9 partly reflects the new collaboration between SBM and the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), who organizes TAM.

The SBM website is now a joint project of the New England Skeptical Society (who founded SBM) and the JREF – two non-profit educational organizations dedicated to promoting the public understanding of science. I am delighted that the JREF is making SBM a priority, and we all look forward to working closely with them in promoting high standards of science in medicine and improved public understanding of the relationship between science and the practice of medicine.

As part of this new relationship I have accepted a position at the JREF of Senior Fellow and Director of their Science-Based Medicine project.


Posted in: Announcements

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Cochrane is Starting to ‘Get’ SBM!

This essay is the latest in the series indexed at the bottom.* It follows several (nos. 10-14) that responded to a critique by statistician Stephen Simon, who had taken issue with our asserting an important distinction between Science-Based Medicine (SBM) and Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM). (Dr. Gorski also posted a response to Dr. Simon’s critique). A quick-if-incomplete Review can be found here.

One of Dr. Simon’s points was this:

I am as harshly critical of the hierarchy of evidence as anyone. I see this as something that will self-correct over time, and I see people within EBM working both formally and informally to replace the rigid hierarchy with something that places each research study in context. I’m staying with EBM because I believe that people who practice EBM thoughtfully do consider mechanisms carefully. That includes the Cochrane Collaboration.

To which I responded:

We don’t see much evidence that people at the highest levels of EBM, eg, Sackett’s Center for EBM or Cochrane, are “working both formally and informally to replace the rigid hierarchy with something that places each research study in context.”


Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to quip—or perhaps that was exactly what the doctor ordered, as will become clear—because on March 5th, nearly four months after writing those words, I received this email from Karianne Hammerstrøm, the Trials Search Coordinator and Managing Editor for The Campbell Collaboration, which lists Cochrane as one of its partners and which, together with the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services, is a source of systematic reviews:


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Placebo Effect for Pain

It has long been recognized that there are substantial multifactorial placebo effects that create real and illusory improvements in response to even an inactive treatment. There is a tendency, however (especially in popular discussion), to oversimplify placebo effects – to treat them as one mind-over-matter effect for all outcomes. Meanwhile researchers are elucidating the many mechanisms that go into measured placebo effects, and the differing magnitude of placebo effects for different outcomes.

For example, placebo effects for pain appear to be maximal, while placebo effects for outcomes like cancer survival appear to be minimal.

A recent study sheds additional light on the expectation placebo effect for pain. The effect is, not surprisingly, substantial. However it does not extrapolate to placebo effects for outcomes other than pain, and the results of this very study give some indication why. From the abstract:

The effect of a fixed concentration of the μ-opioid agonist remifentanil on constant heat pain was assessed under three experimental conditions using a within-subject design: with no expectation of analgesia, with expectancy of a positive analgesic effect, and with negative expectancy of analgesia (that is, expectation of hyperalgesia or exacerbation of pain).

What they found was that the positive expectation group reported twice the analgesic effect as the no expectation group, and the negative expectation group reported no analgesic effect. This is a dramatic effect, but not surprising.


Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals

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Chronic Pain: A Disease in its Own Right

Melanie Thernstrom has written a superb book based on a historical, philosophical, and scientific review of pain: The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering. Herself a victim of chronic pain, she brings a personal perspective to the subject and also includes informative vignettes of doctors and patients she encountered at the many pain clinics she visited in her investigations. She shows that medical treatment of pain is suboptimal because most doctors have not yet incorporated recent scientific discoveries into their thinking, discoveries indicating that chronic pain is a disease in its own right, a state of pathological pain sensitivity.

Chronic pain often outlives its original causes, worsens over time, and takes on a puzzling life of its own… there is increasing evidence that over time, untreated pain eventually rewrites the central nervous system, causing pathological changes to the brain and spinal cord, and that these in turn cause greater pain. Even more disturbingly, recent evidence suggests that prolonged pain actually damages parts of the brain, including those involved in cognition. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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New CMS Chief Donald Berwick: a Trojan Horse for Quackery?

NB: I posted this on Health Care Renewal a couple of days ago, figuring that Dr. Gorski’s post would suffice for the SBM readership (he and I had discussed the topic while at TAM8 last week). But Managing Editor Gorski has asked me to repost it here, which I’m happy to do. I am especially pleased to demonstrate that I am capable of writing a shorter post than is Dr. Gorski. 😉

On July 7, President Obama appointed Dr. Donald Berwick as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Dr. Berwick, a pediatrician, is well known as the CEO of the non-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), which “exists to close the enormous gap between the health care we have and the health care we should have — a gap so large in the US that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2001 called it a ‘quality chasm’.” Dr. Berwick was one of the authors of that IOM report. His IHI has been a major player in the patient safety movement, most notably with its “100,000 Lives Campaign” and, more recently, its “5 Million Lives Campaign.”

Berwick’s CMS gig is a “recess appointment”: it was made during the Senate’s July 4th recess period, without a formal confirmation hearing—although such a hearing must take place before the end of this Senate term, if he is to remain in the position. A recent story suggested that Obama had made the recess appointment in order to avoid a reprise of “last year’s divisive health care debate.” The president had originally nominated Berwick for the position in April, and Republicans have opposed “Berwick’s views on rationing of care,” claiming that he “would deny needed care based on cost.”

A “Patient-Centered Extremist”

If there is a problem with the appointment, it is likely to be roughly the opposite of what Republicans might suppose: Dr. Berwick is a self-described “Patient-Centered Extremist.” He favors letting patients have the last word in decisions about their care even if that means, for example, choosing to have unnecessary and expensive hi-tech studies. In an article for Health Affairs published about a year ago, he explicitly argued against the “professionally dominant view of quality of health care”:


Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Living Matrix: A Movie Promoting Energy Medicine Beliefs

It’s boring to try to ferret out reliable health information from dry medical journals. It’s easier and more fun to watch a movie. A new movie promises to change the way you think about your health. To bring you breakthroughs that will transform your understanding of how to get well and stay well. To share the discoveries of leading researchers and health practitioners about miracle cures that traditional medicine can’t explain.

If this makes your baloney detector light up, good for you!

The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing is an atrociously bad movie that falls squarely in the tradition of What the Bleep Do We Know? In his book Nonsense on Stilts, Massimo Pigliucci characterized the “Bleep” movie as “one of the most spectacular examples of a horribly tangled mess of science and nonsense,” and this new movie is more of the same. Bleep was just silly, but The Living Matrix is potentially dangerous because it might persuade patients to make poor decisions about their medical care. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine

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