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Questioning The Annual Pelvic Exam

A new article in the Journal of Women’s Health by Westhoff, Jones, and Guiahi asks “Do New Guidelines and Technology Make the Routine Pelvic Examination Obsolete?”

The pelvic exam consists of two main components: The insertion of a speculum to visualize the cervix and the bimanual exam where the practitioner inserts two fingers into the vagina and puts the other hand on the abdomen to palpate the uterus and ovaries. The rationales for a pelvic exam in asymptomatic women boil down to these:

  • Screening for chlamydia and gonorrhea
  • Evaluation before prescribing hormonal contraceptives
  • Screening for cervical cancer
  • Early detection of ovarian cancer

None of these are supported by the evidence. Eliminating bimanual exams and limiting speculum exams in asymptomatic patients would reduce costs without reducing health benefits, allowing for better use of resources for services of proven benefit. Pelvic exams are necessary only for symptomatic patients and for follow-up of known abnormalities. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Ear Infections: To Treat Or Not To Treat?

Ear infections used to be a devastating problem. In 1932, acute otitis media (AOM) and its suppurative complications accounted for 27 percent of all pediatric admissions to Bellevue Hospital. Since the introduction of antibiotics, it has become a much less serious problem. For decades it was taken for granted that all children with AOM should be given antibiotics, not only to treat the disease itself but to prevent complications like mastoiditis and meningitis.

In the 1980s, that consensus began to change. We realized that as many as 80 percent of uncomplicated ear infections resolve without treatment in three days. Many infections are caused by viruses that don’t respond to antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics leads to the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria. Antibiotics cause side effects. A new strategy of watchful waiting was developed.

Current Medical Guidelines

In 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) collaborated to issue evidence-based guidelines based on a review of the published evidence. Something was lost in the transmission: The guidelines have been over-simplified and misrepresented, so it’s useful to look at what they actually said. There were six parts:

1. Criteria were specified for accurate diagnosis.

  • History of acute onset of signs and symptoms
  • Presence of middle ear effusion (ear drum bulging, lack of mobility, air-fluid level)
  • Signs and symptoms of middle ear inflammation: Either red ear drum or ear pain interfering with normal activity or sleep

They stressed that AOM must be distinguished from otitis media with effusion (OME). OME is more common, occurs with the common cold, can be a precursor or a consequence of AOM, and is not an indication for antibiotic treatment. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Integrative Medicine As The Butt Of A Hoax

In 1996, Alan Sokal got a bogus paper published in the journal Social Text. It was a parody full of meaningless statements in the jargon of postmodern philosophy and cultural studies. The editors couldn’t tell the difference between Sokal’s nonsense and the usual articles they publish.

Now a British professor of medical education, Dr. John McLachlan, has perpetrated a similar hoax on supporters of so-called “integrative” medicine. He reports his prank in an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

After receiving an invitation to submit papers to an International Conference on Integrative Medicine, he invented a ridiculous story about a new form of reflexology and acupuncture with points represented by a homunculus map on the buttocks. He claimed to have done studies showing that

responses are stronger and of more therapeutic value than those of auricular or conventional reflexology. In some cases, the map can be used for diagnostic purposes.

The organizers asked him to submit an abstract. He did. In the abstract he said he would present only case histories, testimonies, and positive outcomes, since his methods did not lend themselves to randomized controlled trials; and he suggested that his “novel paradigm” might lead to automatic rejection by closed minds. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

High-Dose Flu Vaccine For Older Adults

Dr. Novella  has recently written about this year’s seasonal flu vaccine and Dr. Crislip has reviewed the evidence for flu vaccine efficacy. There’s one little wrinkle that they didn’t address — one that I’m more attuned to because I’m older than they are.

I got my Medicare card last summer, so I am now officially one of the “elderly.” A recent review by Goodwin et al. showed that the antibody response to flu vaccines is significantly lower in the elderly. They called for a more immunogenic vaccine formulation for that age group. My age group. One manufacturer has responded. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Book Review: The Mayo Clinic Book Of Home Remedies

I write a lot of critical articles. It’s nice to be able to write a positive one for a change. I received a prepublication proof of The Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies: What to Do for the Most Common Health Problems. It is due to be released on October 26 and can be pre-ordered from Since “quackademic” medicine is infiltrating our best institutions and organizations, I wasn’t sure I could trust even the prestigious Mayo Clinic. I was expecting some questionable recommendations for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments, but I found nothing in the book that I could seriously object to.

It is organized alphabetically, starting with acne and airplane ear and progressing through bedbugs, boils and bronchitis, dandruff, depression and diabetes to warts, wrinkles and wrist pain. Each entry consists of (1) a description of the problem and its symptoms, (2) treatments you can try at home, and (3) when to seek professional medical help. It concludes with a short section on emergency medicine that covers anaphylaxis, bleeding, burns, CPR, choking, fracture, heart attack, poisoning, seizure, shock and stroke.

Nowhere does it mention acupuncture, chiropractic, energy medicine, or homeopathy. It gives good, clear guidance about when a health problem should not be treated with home remedies. Its recommendations about diet and exercise are solid. It doesn’t recommend anything that can’t be supported by published studies and common sense. When it recommends herbal remedies and dietary supplements, it is cautious about what it claims. For instance, glucosamine and chondroitin are listed for osteoarthritis, but they point out that further study is required and they say “because the supplements may help and appear to be safe, it may not hurt to give them a try.” Not exactly a strong recommendation. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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