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Why Science Should Override Celebrity

Dr. Barron Lerner has written a book about breast cancer: “The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America.” And he’s written a book about celebrity patients: “When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine.” He wed the two topics in a blog post on the New York Times health blog entitled “Suzanne Somers, Cancer Expert.” Excerpts:

“Earlier this week, NBC’s “Dateline” devoted an entire hour on Sunday evening to allow the actress Suzanne Somers to express her rather unconventional beliefs about cancer.

It is not the first time a major media outlet has given air time to Ms. Somers, whose journey into the medical realm has been featured on a variety of news programs, talk shows and entertainment channels. A few years ago, Oprah Winfrey invited Ms. Somers on her show to share the secrets behind her youthful appearance — a complex regimen of unregulated hormone creams and some 60 vitamins and supplements.

But is it entirely outrageous that respected media organizations continue to give the “Three’s Company” sitcom star a platform to dispense medical advice? Not really, in a world in which celebrities have become among the most recognizable spokespeople — and sometimes experts — about various diseases.

…patients — especially those who want to explore every possible avenue — have the right to know that there are unorthodox cancer therapies that some people believe are helpful.

But not without several caveats, and that is where Ms. Somers, and many of those in the media who discuss her books and views, have failed. Ms. Somers says she is promoting hope, but false hope benefits no one.

Many people with end-stage cancer are, understandably, desperate, and thus potentially vulnerable to a sales pitch — even an expensive one. But here is a case when an informed patient may truly be a wiser patient. Perhaps if doctors were more willing to address the fact that these nontraditional treatments exist, and share what we do and don’t know about their effectiveness, an actress like Ms. Somers would have less influence, and science would override celebrity.”

There’s been quite an online response to Dr. Lerner’s blog post. One reader wrote, succinctly:

“From Thigh Master to Snake Oil.”

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

Book Review: “Tabloid Medicine: How The Internet Is Being Used To Hijack Medical Science For Fear And Profit”

This was the Guest Blog at Scientific American on February 23rd, 2011. 

In his new book, “Tabloid Medicine: How The Internet Is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science for Fear and Profit,” Robert Goldberg, PhD, explains why the Internet is a double-edged sword when it comes to health information. On the one hand, the Web can empower people with quality medical information that can help them make informed decisions. On the other hand, the Web is an unfiltered breeding ground for urban legends, fear-mongering and snake oil salesmen.

Goldberg uses case studies to expose the sinister side of health misinformation. Perhaps the most compelling example of a medical “manufactroversy” (defined as a manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute) is the anti-vaccine movement. Thanks to the efforts of corrupt scientists, personal injury lawyers, self-proclaimed medical experts, and Hollywood starlets, a false link between vaccines and autism has been promoted on a global scale via the Internet. The resulting panic, legal feeding frenzy, money-making alternative medicine sales, and reduction in childhood vaccination rates (causing countless preventable deaths), are sickening and tragic.

As Goldberg continues to explore the hyperbole behind specific “health threats,” a fascinating pattern emerges. Behind the most powerful manufactroversies, lies a predictable formula: First, a new problem is generated by redefining terminology. For example, an autism “epidemic” suddenly exists when a wide range of childhood mental health diagnoses are all reclassified as part of an autism spectrum. The reclassification creates the appearance of a surge in autism cases, and that sets the stage for cause-seeking.

Second, “instant experts” immediately proclaim that they have special insight into the cause. They enjoy the authority and attention that their unique “expertise” brings them and begin to position themselves as a “little guy” crusader against injustice. They also are likely to spin conspiracy theories about government cover-ups or pharmaceutical malfeasance to make their case more appealing to the media. In many cases the experts have a financial incentive in promoting their point of view (they sell treatments or promote their books, for example).

Third, because mainstream media craves David and Goliath stories and always wants to be the first to break news, they often report the information without thorough fact-checking. This results in the phenomenon of “Tabloid Medicine.” Read more »

When Dietary Supplements Are Used As Medicines

I was surprised to get this e-mail from a reader:

Surely, Dr. Hall, the public mania for nutritional supplements is baseless. All the alleged nutrients in supplements are contained in the food we eat. And what governmental agency has oversight responsibility regarding the production of these so-call nutritional supplements? Even if one believes that such pills have value, how can the consumer be assured that the product actually contains what the label signifies? I have yet to find a comment on this subject on your otherwise informative website.

My co-bloggers and I have addressed these issues repeatedly.Peter Lipson covered DSHEA (The Diet Supplement Health and Education Act) nicely. It’s all been said before, but perhaps it needs to be said again — and maybe by writing this post I can make it easier for new readers to find the information.

Food, Medicine, or Something In Between?

The FDA regulates foods and has been instrumental in improving the safety of our food supply. It regulates prescription and over-the-counter medications, requiring evidence of effectiveness and safety before marketing. Surveys have shown that most people falsely assume these protections extend to everything on the shelves including diet supplements, but they don’t.

Under the 1994 Diet Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), a variety of products such as vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, organ tissues, and hormones can evade the usual controls if they are sold as diet supplements. Under the DSHEA, the manufacturer doesn’t have to prove to the FDA that a product is safe and effective; it is up to the FDA to prove that it isn’t safe, and until recently there was no systematic method of reporting adverse effects (required reporting is still limited to serious effects like death).

So far the FDA has only managed to ban one substance, ephedra, and it took the death of a prominent sports figure and considerable skirmishing with the courts to accomplish that. Independent lab tests of diet supplements have found a high rate of contamination (with things like heavy metals and prescription drugs) and dosages wildly varying from the label. A striking example was Gary Null’s recent poisoning with vitamin D from one of his own products which contained 1,000 times the intended amount.

The FDA has issued rules on good manufacturing practices, but standardization is not required and it remains to be seen whether the new rules will effectively improve product quality. Read more »

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

Treating The Common Cold

For the last week I have had a cold. I usually get one each winter. I have two kids in school and they bring home a lot of viruses. I also work in a hospital, which tends (for some reason) to have lots of sick people. Although this year I think I caught my cold while traveling.  I’m almost over it now, but it’s certainly a miserable interlude to my normal routine.

One thing we can say for certain about the common cold — it’s common. It is therefore no surprise that there are lots of cold remedies, folk remedies, pharmaceuticals, and “alternative” treatments. Finding a “cure for the common cold” has also become a journalistic cliche — reporters will jump on any chance to claim that some new research may one day lead to a cure for the common cold. Just about any research into viruses, no matter how basic or preliminary, seems to get tagged with this headline. (It’s right up there with every fossil being a “missing link.”)

But despite the commonality of the cold, the overall success of modern medicine, and the many attempts to treat or prevent the cold — there are very few treatments that are actually of any benefit. The only certain treatment is tincture of time. Most colds will get better on their own in about a week. This also creates the impression that any treatment works — no matter what you do, your symptoms are likely to improve. It is also very common to get a mild cold that lasts just a day or so. Many people my feel a cold “coming on” but then it never manifests. This is likely because there was already some partial immunity, so the infection was wiped out quickly by the immune system. But this can also create the impression that whatever treatment was taken at the onset of symptoms worked really well, and even prevented the cold altogether.

What Works

There is a short list of treatments that do seem to have some benefit. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, can reduce many of the symptoms of a cold — sore throat, inflamed mucosa, aches, and fever. Acetaminophen may help with the pain and fever, but it is not anti-inflammatory and so will not work as well. NSAIDs basically take the edge off, and may make it easier to sleep. Read more »

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

Mind-Over-Matter In Medicine

[Recently] I came upon a Jan 24 op-ed, “A Fighting Spirit Won’t Change Your Life” by Richard Sloan, Ph.D., of Columbia University’s psychiatry department. Somehow I’d missed this worthwhile piece on the sometimes-trendy notion of mind-over-matter in healing and medicine.

Sloan opens with aftermath of the Tucson shootings:

…Representative Giffords’s husband describes her as a “fighter,” and no doubt she is one. Whether her recovery has anything to do with a fighting spirit, however, is another matter entirely.

He jumps quickly through a history of the mind cure movement in America: From Phineas Quimby’s concept of illness as a product of mistaken beliefs — to William James and “New Thought” ideas — to Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 “Power of Positive Thinking” — to more current takes on the matter. These ideas, while popular, are not reality-based.

In his words:

But there’s no evidence to back up the idea that an upbeat attitude can prevent any illness or help someone recover from one more readily. On the contrary, a recently completed study* of nearly 60,000 people in Finland and Sweden who were followed for almost 30 years found no significant association between personality traits and the likelihood of developing or surviving cancer. Cancer doesn’t care if we’re good or bad, virtuous or vicious, compassionate or inconsiderate. Neither does heart disease or AIDS or any other illness or injury.

*Am. J. Epidemiol. (2010) 172 (4): 377–385.

The New York Times printed several letters in response, most of which point to pseudo-evidence on the matter. All the more reason to bolster public education in the U.S. — people won’t be persuaded by charismatic, wishful thinking about healthcare.

It happens I’m a fan of Joan Didion’s. I was so taken by the “Year of Magical Thinking,” in fact, that I read it twice. Irrational responses — and hope — are normal human responses to illness, disappointment, and personal loss. But they’re not science. It’s important to keep it straight.

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

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