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Why Negative Medical Studies Are Good

This is a guest column by Ivan Oransky, M.D., who is executive editor of Reuters Health and blogs at Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch.

One of the things that makes evaluating medical evidence difficult is knowing whether what’s being published actually reflects reality. Are the studies we read a good representation of scientific truth, or are they full of cherry-picked data that help sell drugs or skew policy decisions?

That question may sound like that of a paranoiac, but rest assured, it’s not. Researchers have worried about a “positive publication bias” for decades. The idea is that studies showing an effect of a particular drug or procedure are more likely to be published. In 2008, for example, a group of researchers published a New England Journal of Medicine study showing that nearly all — or 94 percent — of published studies of antidepressants used by the FDA to make approval decisions had positive results. But the researchers found that when the FDA included unpublished studies, only about half — or 51 percent — were positive.

A PLoS Medicine study published that same year found similar results for studies long after drugs were approved: Less than half — 43 percent — of studies used by the FDA to approve 90 drugs were published within five years of approval. It was those with positive results that were more likely in journals.

All of that can leave the impression that something may work better than it really does. And there is at least one powerful incentive for journals to publish positive studies: Drug and device makers are much more likely to buy reprints of such reports. Such reprints are highly lucrative for journals. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

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*

Humans And Food: Why We Love Ice Cream

Scientists know that our perceptions about taste and texture drive our food preferences. They know quite a lot about the role of taste in this regard, and the results of some recent experiments have shed new light on the role of texture as well, particularly as it relates to foods containing starch.

Starch is a major component of potatoes, rice, corn, wheat and the enormous variety of foods derived from them. It is also added to many other products from maple syrup to pudding. In fact, starch accounts for 40 to 60 percent of the calorie content in the average Western diet, and more than that in many Asian and third-world diets. 

Humans begin digesting starch in the mouth, where the salivary glands secrete an enzyme known as amylase. This enzyme breaks down starch and other complex carbohydrates into simpler sugar molecules which end up being absorbed from the small intestine into the bloodstream. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Pizaazz*

Live Longer With Strong Social Ties

A study published in the July PLoS Medicine is getting a lot of press for its conclusion that strong social networks are related to increased lifespan.

The meta-analysis of 148 studies involving 308,849 people found that those with stronger relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over 7.5 years of follow-up. What’s more, the researchers reported that a lack of strong social ties is as bad healthwise as drinking or smoking, and worse than not exercising or being obese.

But although the association between strong social ties and improved longevity seems robust, other factors could be at play, and applying the findings in clinical practice could be difficult. And sorry, Facebook fanatics: Online “friendships” aren’t thought to count as much as in-person ones do. (PLoS Medicine, New York Times, TIME, The Atlantic)

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

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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