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Counter-Intuitive Results: Several Cancer Screening Tests Don’t Improve Health Outcomes

Nearly forty years ago, President Richard Nixon famously declared a “War on Cancer” by signing the National Cancer Act of 1971. Like the Manhattan Project, the Apollo program that was then landing men on the Moon, and the ongoing (and eventually successful) World Health Organization-led initiative to eradicate smallpox from the face of the Earth, the “War on Cancer” was envisioned as a massive, all-out research and treatment effort. We would bomb cancer into submission with powerful regimens of chemotherapy, experts promised, or, failing that, we would invest in early detection of cancers so that they could be more easily cured at earlier stages.

It was in the spirit of the latter that the National Cancer Institute launched the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer (PLCO) Screening trial in 1992. This massive study, which eventually enrolled more than 150,000 men and women between age 55 and 74, was designed to test the widespread belief that screening and early detection of the most common cancers could improve morbidity and mortality in the long term. Not a few influential voices suggested that the many millions of dollars invested in running the trial might be better spent on programs to increase the use of these obviously-effective tests in clinical practice.

They were wrong. As of now, the PLCO study is 0-for-2. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

When Less Is More: Smaller Doses Of Chemo May Be Equally Effective In AML

A recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine includes an article with the bland title Cytarabine Dose for Acute Myeloid Leukemia. AML is an often-curable form of leukemia characterized by rapidly-growing myeloid white blood cells. Cytarabine — what we’d call “Ara-C” on rounds  — has been a mainstay of AML treatment for decades.

The new report* covers a fairly large, multicenter, randomized trial of adult patients with AML. The researchers, based in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany, evaluated 860 patients who received either intermediate or high doses of Ara-C in their initial, induction chemotherapy. According to the journal, “this investigator-sponsored study did not involve any pharmaceutical companies.”

The main finding was that at a median follow-up of 5 years there were no significant differences between the groups in terms of complete remission rates, relapses or overall survival. The high-dose Ara-C offered no clear advantage in any prognostic subgroup, including those with genetic changes that bear a poor risk. Not surprisingly, Grade 3 and 4 (severe) toxicities were more common in the patients who received higher doses of Ara-C. Those patients also had lengthier hospitalizations and prolonged reduction in their blood counts.

Why am I mentioning this report, besides that it hasn’t received any press coverage? First, because the findings might matter to people who have AML and are contemplating treatment options. But mainly it’s an example of how carefully dialing down some chemotherapy doses could reduce health care costs and lessen untoward effects of cancer therapy — in terms of early toxicities and, possibly down the line, fewer secondary malignancies – without compromising long-term outcomes.

*subscription required: N Engl J Med 364: 1027–36 (2011). The free abstract includes some details on the chemo doses.

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

Cancer And Science-Based Medicine: Skepticism Vs. Nihilism

Last Friday, Mark Crislip posted an excellent deconstruction of a very disappointing article that appeared in the most recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer (SI), the flagship publication of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). I say “disappointing,” because I was disappointed to see SI publish such a biased, poorly thought out article, apparently for the sake of controversy. I’m a subscriber myself, and in general enjoy reading the magazine, although of late I must admit that I don’t always read each issue cover to cover the way I used to do. Between work, grant writing, blogging, and other activities, my outside reading, even of publications I like, has declined. Perhaps SI will soon find itself off my reading list.

Be that as it may, I couldn’t miss the article that so irritated Mark, because it irritated me as well. There it was, emblazoned prominently on the cover of the March/April 2011 issue: “Seven Deadly Medical Hypotheses.” I flipped through the issue to the article to find out that this little gem was written by someone named Michael Spector, M.D. A tinge of familiarity going through my brain, I tried to think where I had heard that name before.

And then I remembered.

Dr. Spector, it turns out, first got on my nerves about a year ago, when he wrote an article for the January/February 2010 issue of SI entitled “The War on Cancer: A Progress Report for Skeptics.” I remember at that time being irritated by the article and wanting to pen a discussion of the points in that article but don’t recall why I never did. It was probably a combination of the fact that SI doesn’t publish its articles online until some months have passed and perhaps my laziness about having to manually transcribe with my own little typing fingers any passages of text that I wanted to cite. By the time the article was available online, I forgot about it and never came back to it — until now. I should therefore, right here, right now, publicly thank Mark (and, of course, Dr. Spector) for providing me the opportunity to revisit that article in the context of piling on, so to speak, Dr. Spector’s most recent article. After all, Deadly Hypothesis Seven (as Dr. Spector so cheesily put it) is:

From a cancer patient population and public health perspective, cancer chemotherapy (chemo) has been a major medical advance.

Dr. Spector then takes this opportunity to cite copiously from his 2010 article, sprinkling “(Spector, 2010)” throughout the text like powdered sugar on a cupcake. There’s the opening I needed to justify revisiting an article that’s more than a year old! And what fantastic timing, too, hot on the heals of my post from a couple of weeks ago entitled “Why Haven’t We Cured Cancer Yet?Read more »

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

When A World-Class Medical Institution Saves You Yet Fails You

Let me start by saying I really like MD Anderson Cancer Center. There is a lot to like. Take their tag line for example: “Making care history.” If anyone finds a cure for this cancer or that cancer, MD Anderson will have a hand in it, I’m sure. Hospitals could also learn a thing or two about the meaning of comprehensive care, clinical integration, and customer service from MD Anderson is well.

I have another reason why I like MD Anderson so well: They saved my wife’s life. You see, she was diagnosed back in November of 2004 with stage four non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). As anyone familiar with lung care knows, lung cancer is a very tough adversary. It’s an even tougher adversary when your insurance company insists that your local community hospital and oncologists are “just as good” as MD Anderson’s in terms of quality and outcomes.

You guessed it. In 2004, my wife and I had to fight long and hard to get our insurance carrier to authorize my wife care at MD Anderson, an out of network provider. I’m happy to say we won that fight back in 2004 and again just last week when my wife’s employer’s new insurance carrier refused to authorize her continued care at MD Anderson. You see, her new carrier wanted to rehash the whole medical necessity thing all over again.

Now you would think that a world-class organization like MD Anderson would do everything possible to help prospective patients deal with these kinds of insurance issues. After all, they seem to do everything for you once care is authorized. But you would be wrong. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Mind The Gap*

FDA Reports On Association Of Breast Implants And A Rare Form Of Cancer

The FDA [has] issued an alert about a pos­sible link between breast implants — saline or sil­icone — and a rare form of lym­phoma called anaplastic large cell lym­phoma (ALCL). These lym­phoma cases are exceed­ingly rare, but the asso­ci­ation appears to be significant.

The FDA iden­tified a total of approx­i­mately 60 ALCL cases in asso­ci­ation with implants, worldwide. Of these, 34 were iden­tified by review of pub­lished medical lit­er­ature from 1997 to May, 2010; the others were reported by implant man­u­fac­turers and other sources. The agency esti­mates the number of women worldwide with breast implants is between five and 10 million. These numbers translate to between six and 12 ALCL cases in the breast, per million women with breast implants, assessed over 13 years or so.

In women who don’t have implants, ALCL is an infre­quent tumor, affecting approx­i­mately one in 500,000 women is the U.S. per year. This form of lym­phoma — a malig­nancy of lym­pho­cytes, a kind of white blood cell — can arise almost any­where in the body. But ALCL cases arising in the breast are unusual. The FDA reports that roughly three in 100,000,000 women are diag­nosed with ALCL in the breast per year in the U.S.

These are very small numbers. Still, the finding of ALCL tumors by the implant cap­sules is highly sug­gestive. Almost all of the implant-associated ALCL cases were T-cell type, whereas most breast lym­phomas are of B-cell type. The lym­phomas arose in women with both sil­icone and saline-type implants, and in women with implants placed for pur­poses or aug­men­tation and for recon­struction after mastectomy. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

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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