availability heuristic, Bad Medical Science, bio-plausible medical decision making, ineffective dangerous drugs, ineffective dangerous surgeries, ineffective dangerous treatment, Medical Procedures, poor-quality medical science, Relative Risk
Editor’s Note: This significant review article clearly states/proves that a good portion of Modern Medicine is bunk and that doctors rarely think scientifically. Propaganda, marketing, uninformed peer pressure and misinformed public pressure as well as traditional greed and ignorance all too often determine misguided medical care decision-making. It is well written and lengthy but well worth the read, especially for professionals and educators. – oz
- Massive cover-up as thousands of medical studies are found wildly inaccurate
Statin Scam Exposed: Cholesterol Drugs Cause Rapid Aging, Brain Damage And Diabetes http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/#axzz4ZkcFdILy#yzy6jhAQ3iIQYmlO.99
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
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Now, listen to the story with the sad ending: Not long after helping the executive, Brown and his colleagues were asked to consult on the case of a 51-year-old man from a tiny Missouri town. This man had successfully recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but radiation and six cycles of chemotherapy had left him with progressive scarring creeping over his lungs. He was suffocating inside his own body. The man was transferred to Barnes Jewish Hospital, where Brown works, for a life-saving lung transplant. But when the man arrived in St. Louis, the lung-transplant team could not operate on him.
What the patients in both stories had in common was that neither needed a stent. By dint of an inquiring mind and a smartphone, one escaped with his life intact. The greater concern is: How can a procedure so contraindicated by research be so common?
It is, of course, hard to get people in any profession to do the right thing when they’re paid to do the wrong thing. But there’s more to this than market perversion. On a recent snowy St. Louis morning, Brown gave a grand-rounds lecture to about 80 doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Early in the talk, he showed results from medical tests on the executive he treated, the one who avoided a stent. He then presented data from thousands of patients in randomized controlled trials of stents versus noninvasive treatments, and it showed that stents yielded no benefit for stable patients. He asked the doctors in the room to raise their hands if they would still send a patient with the same diagnostic findings as the executive for a catheterization, which would almost surely lead to a stent. At least half of the hands in the room went up, some of them sheepishly. Brown expressed surprise at the honesty in the room. “Well,” one of the attendees told him, “we know what we do.” But why?
Chances are, you or someone in your family has taken medication or undergone a procedure that is bio-plausible but does not work.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in three American adults have high blood pressure. Blood pressure is a measure of how hard your blood is pushing on the sides of vessels as it moves through your body; the harder the pushing, the more strain on your heart. People with high blood pressure are at enormously increased risk for heart disease (the nation’s No. 1 killer) and stroke (No. 3).
Just as the cardiovascular system is not a kitchen sink, the musculoskeletal system is not an erector set. Cause and effect is frequently elusive.
Consider the knee, that most bedeviling of joints. A procedure known as arthroscopic partial meniscectomy, or APM, accounts for roughly a half-million procedures per year at a cost of around $4 billion. A meniscus is a crescent-shaped piece of fibrous cartilage that helps stabilize and provide cushioning for the knee joint. As people age, they often suffer tears in the meniscus that are not from any acute injury. APM is meant to relieve knee pain by cleaning out damaged pieces of a meniscus and shaving the cartilage back to crescent form. This is not a fringe surgery; in recent years, it has been one of the most popular surgical procedures in the hemisphere. And a burgeoning body of evidence says that it does not work for the most common varieties of knee pain.
At least one-third of adults over 50 will show meniscal tears if they get an MRI. But two-thirds of those will have no symptoms whatsoever. (For those who do have pain, it may be from osteoarthritis, not the meniscus tear.) They would never know they had a tear if not for medical imaging, but once they have the imaging, they may well end up having surgery that doesn’t work for a problem they don’t have.
Randomized, placebo-controlled trials are the gold standard of medical evidence. But not all RCTs, as they are known, are created equal. Even within the gold standard, well-intentioned practices can muddle a study. That is particularly true with “crossover” trials, which have become popular for cancer-drug investigations.
In cancer research, a crossover trial often means that patients in the control group, who start on a placebo, are actually given the experimental drug during the study if their disease progresses. Thus, they are no longer a true control group. The benefit of a crossover trial is that it allows more people with severe disease to try an experimental drug; the disadvantage is the possibility that the study is altered in a manner that obscures the efficacy of the drug being tested.
In 2010, on the strength of a crossover trial, Provenge became the firstcancer vaccine approved by the FDA. A cancer vaccine is a form of immunotherapy, in which a patient’s own immune system is spurred by a drug to attack cancer cells. Given the extraordinary difficulty of treating metastatic cancer, and high expectations following the abject failure of other cancer vaccines, the approval of Provenge was greeted with ecstatic enthusiasm. One scientific paper heralded it as “the gateway to an exciting new paradigm.” Except, Provenge did not hinder tumor growth at all, and it’s hard to know if it really works.
The year after Provenge was approved, the federal government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality issued a “technology assessment” report examining all of the evidence regarding Provenge efficacy. The report says there is “moderate” evidence that Provenge effectively treats cancer, but it also highlighted the fact that more patients who got Provenge at the beginning of the seminal trial also received more and earlier chemotherapy. The report concludes that the effect of Provenge is apparent “only in the context of a substantial amount of eventual chemotherapeutic treatment.” In other words, it is unclear which effects in the trial were due to Provenge and which were due to chemotherapy.
Ideally, findings that suggest a therapy works and those that suggest it does not would receive attention commensurate with their scientific rigor, even in the earliest stages of exploration. But academic journals, scientists, and the media all tend to prefer research that concludes that some exciting new treatment does indeed work.
In the final Q&A, Jacobs stepped up to one of the audience microphones and asked Drazen if journals had an obligation to publish high-quality replication attempts of prominent studies, and he disclosed that his team’s had been rejected by the NEJM. Drazen declined to discuss Jacobs’s paper, but he said that “as editors, we’re powerless,” and the onus should be on the replication researchers, or “the complainant,” as he put it, “and the [original paper] author to work together toward the truth. We’re not trying to say who’s right and who’s wrong; we’re trying to find out what we need to know. Veritas, to advance human health, it’s that simple.”
Jacobs did not find the answer that simple. He found it strange. On a panel about transparency and replication, Drazen seemed to be saying that journals, the main method of information dissemination and the primary forum for replication in science, could do little and that “complainants” need to sort it out with de facto defendants. Many doctors, scientists, patient advocates, and science writers keep track of new developments through premier publications like the NEJM. The less publicly a shaky scientific finding is challenged, the more likely it becomes entrenched common knowledge.
Of course, myriad medical innovations improve and save lives, but even as scientists push the cutting edge (and expense) of medicine, the National Center for Health Statistics reported last month that American life expectancy dropped, slightly. There is, though, something that does powerfully and assuredly bolster life expectancy: sustained public-health initiatives.
Medicine can be like wine: Expense is sometimes a false signal of quality. On an epochal scale, even the greatest triumphs of modern medicine, like the polio vaccine, had a small impact on human health compared with the impact of better techniques for sanitation and food preservation. Due to smoking and poor lifestyle habits, lung cancer—which killed almost no Americans in the early 20th century—is today by far the biggest killer among cancers. Thankfully, public pressure to curb smoking has put lung-cancer deaths in rapid decline since a peak in the 1990s. Deaths from lung cancer should continue to diminish, as they are tightly correlated to smoking rates—but with a 20-year lag; that is, lung cancer deaths will decline 20 years after smoking rates decline.
The health problems that most commonly afflict the American public are largely driven by lifestyle habits—smoking, poor nutrition, and lack of physical activity, among others. In November, a team led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital pooled data from tens of thousands of people in four separate health studies from 1987 to 2008. They found that simple, moderate lifestyle changes dramatically reduced the risk of heart disease, the most prolific killer in the country, responsible for one in every four deaths. People deemed at high familial risk of heart disease cut their risk in half if they satisfied three of the following four criteria: didn’t smoke (even if they smoked in the past); weren’t obese (although they could be overweight); exercised once a week; ate more real food and less processed food. Fitting even two of those categories still substantially decreased risk. In August, a report issued by the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that obesity is now linked to an extraordinary variety of cancers, from thyroids and ovaries to livers and colons.
At the same time, patients and even doctors themselves are sometimes unsure of just how effective common treatments are, or how to appropriately measure and express such things. Graham Walker, an emergency physician in San Francisco, co-runs a website staffed by doctor volunteers called the NNT that helps doctors and patients understand how impactful drugs are—and often are not. “NNT” is an abbreviation for “number needed to treat,” as in: How many patients need to be treated with a drug or procedure for one patient to get the hoped-for benefit? In almost all popular media, the effects of a drug are reported by relative risk reduction. To use a fictional illness, for example, say you hear on the radio that a drug reduces your risk of dying from Hogwart’s disease by 20 percent, which sounds pretty good. Except, that means if 10 in 1,000 people who get Hogwart’s disease normally die from it, and every single patient goes on the drug, eight in 1,000 will die from Hogwart’s disease. So, for every 500 patients who get the drug, one will be spared death by Hogwart’s disease. Hence, the NNT is 500. That might sound fine, but if the drug’s “NNH”—“number needed to harm”—is, say, 20 and the unwanted side effect is severe, then 25 patients suffer serious harm for each one who is saved. Suddenly, the trade-off looks grim.
Now, consider a real and familiar drug: aspirin. For elderly women who take it daily for a year to prevent a first heart attack, aspirin has an estimated NNT of 872 and an NNH of 436. That means if 1,000 elderly women take aspirin daily for a decade, 11 of them will avoid a heart attack; meanwhile, twice that many will suffer a major gastrointestinal bleeding event that would not have occurred if they hadn’t been taking aspirin. As with most drugs, though, aspirin will not cause anything particularly good or bad for the vast majority of people who take it. That is the theme of the medicine in your cabinet: It likely isn’t significantly harming or helping you. “Most people struggle with the idea that medicine is all about probability,” says Aron Sousa, an internist and senior associate dean at Michigan State University’s medical school. As to the more common metric, relative risk, “it’s horrible,” Sousa says. “It’s not just drug companies that use it; physicians use it, too. They want their work to look more useful, and they genuinely think patients need to take this [drug], and relative risk is more compelling than NNT. Relative risk is just another way of lying.”
Even remedies that work extraordinarily well can be less impressive when viewed via NNT. Antibiotics for a sinus infection will resolve symptoms faster in one of 15 people who get them, while one in eight will experience side effects. A meta-analysis of sleep-aid drugs in older adults found that for every 13 people who took a sedative, like Ambien, one had improved sleep—about 25 minutes per night on average—while one in six experienced a negative side effect, with the most serious being increased risk for car accidents.
“There’s this cognitive dissonance, or almost professional depression,” Walker says. “You think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a doctor, I’m going to give all these drugs because they help people.’ But I’ve almost become more fatalistic, especially in emergency medicine.” If we really wanted to make a big impact on a large number of people, Walker says, “we’d be doing a lot more diet and exercise and lifestyle stuff. That was by far the hardest thing for me to conceptually appreciate before I really started looking at studies critically.”
Historians of public health know that most of the life-expectancy improvements in the last two centuries stem from innovations in sanitation, food storage, quarantines, and so on. The so-called “First Public Health Revolution”—from 1880 to 1920—saw the biggest lifespan increase, predating antibiotics or modern surgery.
In the 1990s, the American Cancer Society’s board of directors put out a national challenge to cut cancer rates from a peak in 1990. Encouragingly, deaths in the United States from all types of cancer since then have been falling. Still, American men have a ways to go to return to 1930s levels. Medical innovation has certainly helped; it’s just that public health has more often been the society-wide game changer. Most people just don’t believe it.
In 2014, two researchers at Brigham Young University surveyed Americans and found that typical adults attributed about 80 percent of the increase in life expectancy since the mid-1800s to modern medicine. “The public grossly overestimates how much of our increased life expectancy should be attributed to medical care,” they wrote, “and is largely unaware of the critical role played by public health and improved social conditions determinants.” This perception, they continued, might hinder funding for public health, and it “may also contribute to overfunding the medical sector of the economy and impede efforts to contain health care costs.”
It is a loaded claim. But consider the $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures Act, which recently passed Congress to widespread acclaim. Who can argue with a law created in part to bolster cancer research? Among others, the heads of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Public Health Association. They argue against the new law because it will take $3.5 billion away from public-health efforts in order to fund research on new medical technology and drugs, including former Vice President Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot.” The new law takes money from programs—like vaccination and smoking-cessation efforts—that are known to prevent disease and moves it to work that might, eventually, treat disease. The bill will also allow the FDA to approve new uses for drugs based on observational studies or even “summary-level reviews” of data submitted by pharmaceutical companies. Prasad has been a particularly trenchant and public critic, tweeting that “the only people who don’t like the bill are people who study drug approval, safety, and who aren’t paid by Pharma.”
Perhaps that’s social-media hyperbole. Medical research is, by nature, an incremental quest for knowledge; initially exploring avenues that quickly become dead ends are a feature, not a bug, in the process. Hopefully the new law will in fact help speed into existence cures that are effective and long-lived. But one lesson of modern medicine should by now be clear: Ineffective cures can be long-lived, too.