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Bad Science: How To Mislead, Misinform, and Make Mistakes in Medicine

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Photo of Bad Science Book

I just finished reading Dr. Ben Goldacre’s new book, Bad Science. It received a very favorable review by the British Medical Journal, and so I thought I’d take a look for myself. After all, I am passionate about patient empowerment and worry sincerely for their safety as healthcare is becoming more and more of a “do-it-yourself” proposition.

Ben is a talented writer – his style is straightforward, accessible, and witty. The premise of the book is to expose the underbelly of science – how it’s miscommunicated to the public (via media, PR, and representatives from the snake oil community) and how research is often poorly designed (by uneducated scientists and government agencies, for-profit pharmaceutical companies, and biased physicians).

The case studies presented in Bad Science are especially poignant. Ben has selected a few shining examples of self-promoting figures who have risen to the highest rank of “expert” in the eyes of the media – all the while referring to themselves as “doctor” and yet only having a Ph.D. from an online correspondence school. Their legal bully tactics, fabrication of data to support their proprietary health gimmick, and extreme narcicism – are excellent studies in poor character triumphing over common sense. It is painful to see how successful snake oil salesmen can be, even in these modern and “enlightened” times.

Bad Science carefully dismantles the pseudoscience that underlies many of the claims of alternative medicine. He clearly demonstrates how research can be manipulated to demonstrate a positive effect for any therapeutic intervention, and explains why cosmetic and nutrition research are particularly rife with false positive results.

Ben also explores the role of the human psyche in misunderstanding science. Our deep desire to find a 1:1 correlation between every cause and effect is difficult to overcome. We want 1) to bring artificial simplicity out of complexity, 2) a quick fix in a pill form, 3) to believe in “breakthrough therapies,”4) to read sensational or scintillating news headlines. Unfortunately, science is often coopted to pander to these wants, rather than illuminate the truth.

Finally, Bad Science explores the many ways that statistics can be manipulated to support any claim. In fact, human intuition about math in general is quite flawed, which works against us as we try to understand the data collected by researchers.

I finished the book feeling enlightened but somewhat despairing – yearning to read a sequel, “Good Science” if only to restore my hope in the idea that wise people will have the courage to seek truth over sensationalism, and value objectivity over subjectivity for the greater good of all.

What does Ben Goldacre think we can do to combat the tidal wave of bad science on the Internet? He suggests that people of sound mind blog about the subject as frequently as possible, so that those who are searching for a voice of reason may find one. I blog here and at sciencebasedmedicine.org for that very purpose.

In my next post, I’ll summarize some tips from Bad Science that will help you to recognize when a health message is likely to be inaccurate.

Book Review: Glori, A Different Story

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I met the author of Glori: A Different Story(Nicole Lynn Hannans) here at Revolution Health a couple of months ago. She is a vibrant, beautiful young woman who had a child in her late teens. Nicole explained to me that the vast majority of America’s teen pregnancy resources are dedicated to prevention. Once a teen becomes pregnant, there is very little support for next steps. For this reason, young mothers have difficulty completing a college education and are often trapped in a lifelong cycle of poverty.

As a young African American woman, Nicole was determined not to become a statistic. Despite all the odds, being homeless and surrounded by her boyfriend’s drug dealing business, she managed to escape that life and attended The College of William and Mary as a single mom. She wrote Glori: A Different Story, to inspire other pregnant teens to go and do likewise – knowing that no matter what the odds, an unexpected pregnancy does not prevent women from achieving their potential in life.

The story begins with Nicole as a carefree teen, enjoying outings with friends and flirtations with guys. In preparation for her prom, she ponders her date options. She decides, against her better judgment, to go with a charismatic “bad boy” football player whom she suspects may be dealing drugs. But she finds his charm irresistible and he persuades her that her fears are unfounded.

Soon Nicole is dating this young man (RaKeim) and is deeply attached to him. Sadly, her life begins to spiral out of control as she realizes that all of her suspicions were correct – he is a crack dealer trying to live the life of a big time “gangster.” RaKeim is narcissistic, unfaithful, abusive, and obsessed with money. Nicole gets pregnant, moves out of her home to be with RaKeim and cannot seem to come to grips with who he is rather than whom she hopes he will be.

While reading the book, every fiber in your being wants to scream, “Get out, Nicole, he’s no good for you! Run!” But RaKeim knows just how to play with her emotions, and she is reeled back in time and again. A prophetic statement from a doting aunt punctuates the madness of homelessness and crack fiends: “It takes time to get a relationship out of your system.”

And it did take several years for the RaKeim poison to work its way out of Nicole’s life. The turning point came one night when he tried to steal their baby, and then broke down the apartment door and beat Nicole. After menacing calls, being threatened with a gun, and in-person harassment, Nicole came to realize that she would never be safe. The police were unwilling to issue her a restraining order without further proof of RaKeim’s potential for violence. She had to handle this one alone.

As luck would have it, RaKeim was in and out of jail, which gave Nicole some relief from his behavior. During that time she graduated with high honors from the College of William and Mary, enrolled in a Master’s Program, got a job working with sick children at NIH, and found love again.

Nicole’s straight forward account of her struggles makes a few things quite clear: 1) women are not adequately protected by current domestic violence protocols 2) psychopathic men have an uncanny ability to manipulate their victims 3) overcoming the odds is a matter of will, determination, and very hard work and 4) a mother’s love for her child can inspire her to achieve greatness.

If you’re interested in learning more about Nicole’s life, please check out her website at www.nicoleink.com Her book is aptly named: Glori: A Different Story, and I hope that it inspires many other young moms to reach for glory – and to triumph over adversity.

*** Join Nicole’s Group – Click here***

Further resources for teenage moms:

The Healthy Teen Network

Planned Parenthood

Girl Mom

National Family Planning & Reproductive Health AssociationThis post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Fixing American Healthcare: The Primary Cause of Rising Costs

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In Fixing American Healthcare, Dr. Rich explains that the major cause of rising costs in healthcare is an aging population that requires more resources. Though some have proposed that fraud and waste/inefficiencies are the primary sources of costs spiraling out of control, the truth is that they likely play a minor role compared to the tremendous costs of providing cutting edge treatments to an older and sicker US population. Dr. Rich argues that we don’t hear that much about the escalating cost of caring for older Americans because it makes us squeamish, so we instead focus on curbing costs due to fraud and waste. However, when fraud and waste are not the primary cause of increasing costs, enhanced attempts to quash them do not actually move the savings needle. Since certain groups are tasked with reducing escalating costs due to fraud (in particular), and their work does not result in savings, they must strive harder to find and punish those accused of fraud, perhaps even seeing fraud where it doesn’t exist.

Dr. Rich argues that true fraud is fairly rare, and that the majority of “fraud” cases involve people not complying with rules they had no knowledge of (in many cases even after asking about the rules from the people who made them). Other cases of “fraud” involve retroactive application of rules and then fining hospitals for not being in compliance before the rules were made. His assessment of the PATH audit debacle is quite interesting.

Now, obviously we want to decrease fraud and waste as much as possible – but in the midst of our desperate attempts to curb healthcare spending, we’ll need to have some honest and frank discussions about the elephant in the room: America is sicker than ever before, and we have developed expensive ways to cure/treat those sicknesses – ways that we can’t afford to offer everyone.

What should we do? Dr. Rich suggests that we come together as a nation and decide on some rationing rules. He argues that we’re already rationing our healthcare dollars in covert ways – let’s bring it out into the open so that it’s fair to everyone. Now, I doubt that this will sit well with Americans – but our current “system” is so dysfunctional that maybe the time for a rationing discussion has come?

In this climate of unlimited treatments and limited resources, the best option is to stay healthy as long as possible. That’s why I believe in preventive medicine, healthy lifestyle changes, and doing all that we can to avoid getting sick. In many cases (but certainly not all) eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, controlling our weight, getting our vaccines, and sleeping well each night can go a long way to keeping us out of the hospital. It’s not easy to get Americans to take care of themselves in this way, but I’d rather spend my efforts trying to get us fit than to have to debate rationing rules. In the end, however, we may need to do both. What do you think?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Fixing American Healthcare: The Problem of Covert Rationing

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Dr. Richard Fogoros wrote a fascinating book called Fixing American Healthcare: Wonkonians, Gekkonians, and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare. In the first two thirds of the book, he explains why our healthcare system is broken, and describes its dysfunction with exasperating accuracy.

One of the most important concepts in his book is that of “covert rationing.” As Dr. Rich explains, we Americans cling to two fundamental beliefs:

1. Everything that can be done for a sick person must be done, as long as there’s some small hope of beneficial outcome. (The belief in no spending limits).

2. Healthcare is an entitlement for all Americans. (The belief in universal access).

Since science and technology have provided us with incredible (and expensive) advances over the last several decades, doing all that’s possible for all who are sick is simply not financially possible. However, Americans are fundamentally opposed to rationing care, so the rationing occurs covertly, including cost-savings achieved by people being uninsured, by certain chemo drugs not being covered by Medicare, by physicians being coerced by HMOs to ration care, and countless other subtle and capricious ways.

Covert rationing is a little recognized but fundamental flaw of the current healthcare system, and it results in untold inequities in care. Dr. Rich believes that a fair system requires open rationing of resources, with rules agreed upon by tax payers. Would you agree?

In my next post I’ll discuss Dr. Rich’s thoughts on what’s really driving up healthcare costs…This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Reproducibility: The Final Pilar of Trustworthy Science

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This is my final post in a series inspired by Dr. Barker Bausell’s recent book, “Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine.” Since I began this series, the New York Times has published a rave review of Bausell’s book, which only further confirms the importance of Bausell’s contributions.

Although Bausell’s main thesis is that there are currently no large, randomized controlled trials (published in leading medical journals) demonstrating the effect of any CAM therapy beyond placebo, I have chosen to highlight some of his thinking about research methodology as it applies to the medical literature in general.

So far I have explained why most research (if not carefully designed) will lead to a false positive result. This inherent bias is responsible for many of the illusionary treatment benefits that we hear about so commonly through the media (whether they’re reporting about CAM or Western medicine), because it is their job to relay information in an entertaining way more so than an accurate manner (i.e. good science makes bad television).Then I explained a three step process for determining the trustworthiness of health news and research. We can remember these steps with a simple mnemonic: C-P-R.

The C stands for credibility– in other words, “consider the source” – is the research published in a top tier medical journal with a scientifically rigorous review process?

The P stands for plausibility– is the proposed finding consistent with known principles of physics, chemistry, and physiology or would accepting the result require us to suspend belief in everything we’ve learned about science to date?

And finally we arrive at R – reproducibility. If the research study were repeated, would similar results be obtained?

This third and final pillar of trustworthy science is a simple, but sometimes forgotten, principle. If there is a true cause and effect relationship observed by the researcher, then surely that cause and effect can be demonstrated again and again under the same conditions. Touching a hot stove burner always results in a burned hand. No matter how frequently you test this causal relationship, the result will be similar.

Sometimes conflicting results are obtained by repeating a study. When this happens, the reader should be careful in interpreting the conclusions – there may be a flaw in the study design, or it may be that the conclusions drawn were inaccurate. There could have been a false positive result, or no appreciable effect of the treatment under consideration, therefore leaving the results to chance. Flipping a coin gives you heads one minute and tails the next. Yet a person unfamiliar with coins could conclude (after one flip) that it has a head on both sides. In the end, therefore, one can be more confident in a study’s result if it is born out by other studies.

And so as we conclude this series, I hope that you now feel well equipped to perform CPR (credibility, plausibility, reproducibility checks) on health news. A little healthy skepticism can protect your brain from all the mixed health messages that barrage us each day. At the very least, now you’ll appreciate why most health news reports include an expert quote stating something to the effect of “it’s too early to know for sure if these findings are relevant.” That statement may be the most trustworthy of the entire report.

***

Next up: Shannon Brownlee’s book “Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker And Poorer.” Shannon and I corresponded about this book two years ago, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it has turned out. Once I’ve finished it I’ll give you my thoughts here in this blog.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

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