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Health And The Value Of Open-Mindedness

Three recent sto­ries lead me to my open­ing topic for the year: The value of open-mindedness. This char­ac­ter­is­tic — a state of recep­tive­ness to new ideas — affects how we per­ceive and process infor­ma­tion. It’s a qual­ity I look for in my doc­tors, and which I admire espe­cially in older people.

Piece #1 — On the brain’s matu­rity, flex­i­bil­ity and “cog­ni­tive fitness”

For the first piece, I’ll note a Dec 31 op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times: This Year, Change Your Mind, by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neu­rol­o­gist and author. In this thought­ful essay, he con­sid­ers the adult brain’s “mys­te­ri­ous and extra­or­di­nary” power to adapt and grow: “I have seen hun­dreds of patients with var­i­ous deficits — strokes, Parkinson’s and even demen­tia — learn to do things in new ways, whether con­sciously or uncon­sciously, to work around those deficits.”

With appro­pri­ate and very-real respect, I ques­tion Sacks’ objec­tiv­ity on this sub­ject — he’s referred some of the most out­stand­ing (i.e. excep­tional) neu­ro­log­i­cal cases in the world. And so it may be that his care­ful reports are per­fectly valid but not rep­re­sen­ta­tive; for most of us, the adult brain’s capac­ity to estab­lish new cir­cuitry for lan­guage learn­ing or music appre­ci­a­tion may be lim­ited. What his sto­ries do show is that unimag­in­ably strange things hap­pen in our brains, at least occa­sion­ally. And maybe we should just accept that and take notes (as he does so care­fully), and keep an open mind. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

Echinacea For Colds: Does It Really Work?

Does echinacea, the popular natural cold remedy, really work?

It depends on what you mean by “work.” Results [recently] reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that echinacea may reduce the length of a week-long cold by 7 to 10 hours and make symptoms a little less onerous. That can’t be characterized as a major effect, so many people may figure that the trouble and expense of echinacea just isn’t worth it (fortunately, side effects from echinacea don’t seem to be much of an issue.)

But others may decide that some benefit is better than none, and these results do fit with others that have left the door slightly ajar for echinacea having some effect as a cold remedy — a modest effect, but an effect, nonetheless.

A summary for patients published by the Annals summed up the situation nicely:

People who take echinacea to treat colds may experience a decrease in the length and severity of their cold symptoms but to such a small degree that they may not care about the difference. Although many studies of echinacea have been performed, researchers still disagree about its benefits in treating the common cold. This study is unlikely to change minds about whether to take this remedy.

Have you tried echinacea as a cold remedy? Has it worked? How do research findings, pro and con, affect your opinion of so-called alternative medicines?

Many of the echinacea studies, especially early on, were sponsored by companies making or selling the product. This study was supported by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

- Peter Wehrwein, Editor, Harvard Health Letter

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

About The Placebo Effect

Placebos helped ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) even when patients knew that was what they were taking, a new study reports.

Researchers randomly assigned 80 patients with IBS to receive placebo pills (openly labeled as such) or no treatment over a three-week period. Patients taking placebos had significantly higher mean scores on the IBS Global Improvement Scale at 11 and 21 days, and also reported significant improvements in symptom severity and relief. The results of the study, which was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, were published online Dec. 22 by PLoS ONE.

Anthony Lembo, M.D., a study coauthor, said in a press release that he didn’t expect the placebo to work. “I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them,” he said.

Ted Kaptchuk, O.M.D., the study’s lead author, told the LA Times that a larger study needs to be done to confirm the findings, and said that he didn’t believe such effects would be possible “without a positive doctor-patient relationship.”

ACP Internist looked at placebos’ place in clinical practice in a 2009 article. (PLoS ONE, Public Library of Science, LA Times, ACP Internist)

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

Quackademic Medicine Infiltrates The New England Journal Of Medicine

One of the things that disturbs me the most about where medicine is going is the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine. So prevalent is this unfortunate phenomenon that Doctor RW even coined a truly apt term for it: Quackademic medicine.

In essence, pseudoscientific and even prescientific ideas are rapidly being “integrated” with science-based medicine, or, as I tend to view it, quackery is being “integrated” with scientific medicine, to the gradual erosion of scientific standards in medicine. No quackery is too quacky, it seems. Even homeopathy and naturopathy can seemingly find their way into academic medical centers. Read more »

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

A Letter To Dr. Josephine Briggs About Her Support Of Naturopathy

Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

Director, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Dear Dr. Briggs,

As you know, we’ve met twice. The first time was at the Yale “Integrative Medicine” Symposium in March. The second was in April, when Drs. Novella, Gorski and I met with you for an hour at the NCCAM in Bethesda. At the time I concluded that you favor science-based medicine, although you are in the awkward position of having to appear ‘open-minded’ about nonsense.

More about that below, but first let me address the principal reason for this letter: it is disturbing that you will shortly appear at the 25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP). It is disturbing for two reasons. First, it suggests that you know little about the tenets and methods of the group that you’ll be addressing. Second, your presence will be interpreted as an endorsement of those methods and of that group—whether or not that is your intention. 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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