Sunday, December 31, 2017

A New Year

I'm about to embark on quite a busy semester, as I'll be teaching an "overload", so I will try to maintain some regularity with my posts this spring. Here are some things I'd like to see in the new year.

Health Care Coverage

Despite having control of the federal government, Republicans have been unable to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. The ACA is deeply flawed, but it was a move in the right direction. It doesn't matter if one believes health care is a social and political right, the preponderance of evidence indicates that seamless access to basic health care adds to the wealth and prosperity of a nation. I like that. And if you've ever struggled with insurance issues--or of not having insurance at all--you might get what I mean. You should be able to go to see a provider and get the standard, evidence-based tests and interventions, without having to make a bunch of phone calls, set up a spreadsheet, and doctor-shop. You damn sure shouldn't have to avoid or delay care because of coverage issues.

The ACA has shown itself to be surprisingly difficult to get rid of, but because of political posturing and playing to philosophical ideals, it's also been frustratingly difficult to fix and improve. I hope that in 2018 we'll see society come together on this. The law has been resistant to repeal because when you ask people about its provisions (e.g., keeping your children on insurance until age 26, no refusal of coverage for pre-existing conditions) they like that stuff. The current government sees that and doesn't want to mess with it, but they've used it as a political cudgel for so long, they're stuck! I hope that people will turn their desire for seamless, effective health care into political change in the new year.

The News Gets "Real" on Health Matters
I don't have a whole lot of hope for this one, but I'd like to see news outlets start doing a better job of reporting on health and medical research. 

News organizations often grab stories that are "sexy"--even if they are wrong. An example is a story that came out in 2015 two years about chocolate being good for weight loss. The study was real. It was done by a journalist with a PhD in biology. The results were real...ish. In fact Dr. Johannes Bohannon, writing in Gizmodo, submitted several "junk-science" papers to real journals and fewer than half were rejected because they were junk. The rest were accepted.

The 24-hour news cycle, the profusion of websites and social media platforms require mountains of new content. News organizations tend to not hire journalists with good science credentials, out of concerns for cost-savings, and consumers are poorly informed about what good science looks like. The result is a lot of crappy science gets published without so much as a thoughtful review. Dr. Johannes' study of chocolate did show a correlation between eating chocolate and losing weight, but that statistical result had all sorts of flaws associated with it. Chocolate's not a bad thing, but the sugar and fats can be. Chocolate can have some favorable effects--if nothing else it is enjoyable to eat! But it's not a cure-all, and eating a lot of it won't make you lose weight. Yet the press--print, broadcast, and web--all ran with this story, passing it from one to another until it became a "fact." People can decide that they'll accept the "facts" they like, and call the ones they don't "fake", but Nature eventually wins every time. A strong belief in fake facts won't save anyone from this inevitability.

It would be nice if new organizations and social media would police this better, but I think it will have to come from skeptical consumers to really break free of the hysteria and nonsense that have come to permeate health news.

Investing in Our People's Health

I don't get it. We have really good hard evidence that taking care of kids is good for society. It doesn't just make us feel good. Taking care of kids means more money in your pocket. It means more productivity. In short, taking care of kids is an investment in the future of our society. Yet we continually act in ways that makes it harder for kids to succeed.

A recent example is the difficulty we're having in restoring funding to the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Everyone thinks it's important. Everyone wants it to get done...and yet it still hasn't. School lunches. School nurses. Health education and gym. Music and the arts. These things we sacrifice when we're told to tighten our societal belt. We keep acting like making life meaner, drearier, and hungrier will somehow make society "better".

In 2018, I'd like to see a growing realization that when we keep our kids well-fed, active, and cared for, everyone will benefit.

Want to see less drug use among inner city kids? Want to see better test scores? Want to see suicide rates drop, collage and trade school enrollments rise, and a drop in opioid deaths? If we want to see that we need to start putting our money where our hearts are. I'm not saying we need to throw money at every problem. But there are a lot of really good things we can do with the money we have, and a little bit more spent on our kids (and a little bit less making rich people richer) would improve everyone's lives.

Well that's it for now. I hope to be publishing a couple of papers on the science of homeopathy soon, and am currently working on a study of the use of mind-body techniques and their role in preventing cancer recurrence. How much I'll get done in the spring, I'm not sure! But then there's summer, which seems a long way off right now (brrr!). Best wishes to my readers in the New Year!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fall Home Care

It's autumn and for a change I don't have any major philosophical stuff to blog about. I thought it might be a good time to share some of my home care pearls for colds and such.

In my pharmacology class at Penn State the students just had their unit on respiratory drugs. It's a good time to discuss a few of the things that people use on their own for colds, flus, and what my grandmother used to call "logos-on-the-bogos"...basically just feeling kinda cruddy, when the weather turns colder and wetter.

Echinacea (Echinacea species)

By Jacob Rus - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
The Purple Coneflower has been in use for minor infections for a long time. I use and recommend it for not only colds and flus and such, but also for minor skin infections. I've used it as a supplement for more serious conditions as a co-drug with antibiotics for, say, pneumonia or dental abscess. For the lay person, echinacea is a good way to try natural medicine.

I generally recommend liquid supplements, since many powdered herbs in capsules don't get absorbed well and don't have a very long shelf life. A dose form called the standardized dry extract is like a liquid form that has been re-dried to a powder and formed into a capsule or tablet. Liquigels or "gel-caps" are another dose form with good absorption and a decent shelf life.

There a myth about echinacea that it can be taken daily to prevent colds. This doesn't work, and several research studies have shown this to be true. However, taken for short periods of time at the very onset of an illness it actually does help! The German E Commission, that country's foremost clearinghouse on the benefits and safety of herbal medicines, notes that echinacea really works to boost immunity. They also note that continuous daily use of echinacea can "burn out" the immune system. I generally recommend 2 to 3 times daily dosing for 3 to 5 days for adults.

There's a concern with echinacea: people with auto-immune or auto-inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis should use echinacea with professional supervision as it can actually make those conditions worse.

Elderberry (Sambucus niger)

By Pollinator. Released under GFDL
I love this stuff! Unlike echinacea, elderberry has not shown any tendency to activate auto-immune diseases. It's also kind of tasty --compared to the more herbal flavor of echinacea. It also has a great extra feature for colds and sore throats and such: it calms and soothes irritated respiratory passages.

It can be taken in any number of ways: liquid syrups and extracts, many available at regular drugstores; or it can be taken as a tea. Add a bit of honey and you've got a great natural and effective cold remedy! I'm not pushing any particular brand, but just to give you an idea of how far this tree-herb has gotten into the market, check out Sambucol Original Formula (Swanson Health Products). This stuff comes as an easily-dosed liquid, a kids' formula, and even as gummies! 

Like echinacea, this stuff doesn't prevent colds and such. It's relatively cheap and it can shorten the duration of and improve one's comfort with a cold, flu or sore throat.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

I include this here as what NOT to do. Goldenseal actually does work. This bitter, yellow root herb activates the immunity found on the surface of mucus membranes, including the nose, throat, and sinuses. It's also pretty potent. I reserve the use of goldenseal for cases of sinusitis, but it can aggravate people whose symptoms are actually from allergies. It can also adversely affect the digestion. Goldenseal is a good example of something that people often use casually but incorrectly, and I strongly suggest it be avoided unless advised by a professional with herbal medicine training.

Other things to not do:

  • Don't use any products labelled "homeopathic" unless directed by a professional. Many manufacturers add a little bit of a homeopathically potentized ingredient to their products so that they can get around FDA restrictions on disease-labeling. Unfortunately, this has led to some problems, such as with the product Zicam. The homeopathic version has actually caused loss of smell in some people. Swanson makes a "homeopathic" Sambucol. I recommend to my patients that they do not purchase this variety.
  • Don't take any herbal or natural products daily for more than a week to 10 days. If one is getting worse despite self-treatment, doesn't it make sense that one maybe needs to get checked out by a medical provider? 
  • Don't take high potency homeopathics without professional supervision. Every year I see non-medically trained people selling high potency (200c and higher) homeopathic remedies to prevent the flu. The influenza virus itself is available as a homeopathically-prepared product called Influenzinum (in-flu-en-ZI-num). High potency remedies prepared from viruses are supposed to be "prescription only", but I can tell you that every year I hear about people finding this stuff from online sources. Physician and homeopathy inventor Samuel Hahnemann himself observed that high potency remedies "leave their mark" on the patient and can cause disease. Studies have found that this sort of "homeopathic vaccination" only works about half the time--not any better than the conventional flu shot, and often worse than that.
A final word on the cold and flu season...

Don't forget about the easy stuff:
  • Wash your hands! Handwashing (and alternatively, the use of hand sanitizer) is the single best thing you can do to avoid catching a cold!
  • Rest. Missing sleep and pushing yourself too hard decreases immunity.
  • Honey and lemon. Lemon refreshes and stimulates the system, according to Indian (ayurvedic) medicine, and honey soothes the respiratory passages and has its own antiviral properties--and it's delicious!
  • Salt water gargles and/or the use of nasal washing (neti pot). The water should be lukewarm and the water mildly salty, not disgustingly salty. About a 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of water is fine. For minor sore throats and coughs, the use of salt water helps to loosen mucus and soothe the membranes. It's one thing that regular doctors and nurses often recommend that I heartily agree with!
  • Lavender. Lavender in a steam or heated diffuser is soothing to the respiratory passages and is mildly sedative. A few drops of genuine lavender oil in a diffuser can help the fussy child (or adult) with a cold or flu to sleep more restfully. There are many places to get diffusers for use with essential oils, and these can be found in stores and online.
This blog today is educational only, and many of the things I have said here can be found elsewhere online. If you have a medical issue that requires further exploration or advice, please see your health care provider. Be well!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Is There a War On Somewhere?

I get perhaps a dozen email blasts a day, and several medical journals a month. One blast caught my attention with the headline "On Statin Denial and Cult Diets" in the Sept. 14th issue of Patient Care. Steven Nissen is a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic and a leading advocate of the use of statins like Lipitor or Zocor to reduce cholesterol and prevent heart disease. He's got a good reputation, and is a pretty good guy--he helped to expose the problems with the Merck pain drug Vioxx, which was causing heart disease. So this isn't about him. It's about what his words represent.

The article shares a transcript from Dr. Nissen's remarks in a video on MedPage Today in which he says that there's an internet cult against the use of statin drugs. He reports that statins reduce disease and death. He leaves out that this is only in people with heart disease risk or existing disease. He argues that the "supplement industry..." makes "" for these alternatives that are "not based in good scientific studies." That's not strictly true, although my bigger worry is how poorly regulated that industry is. He worries that all this loose talk on internet message boards and various websites is "harming the public" and that physicians should "fight back against...these wacky diets" claimed to reduce cardiac disease.*

He's right about some of these things, and overstates others. Ok, no one's perfect. But what really caught my attention and made me take to the keyboard was his statement, "We have to fight back with good facts and good science [emphasis mine]."

Why is there always a fight? Who is fighting whom, and why? Is fighting something they teach in medical school?

For many years I have been observing this. I'll hear doctors and nurses say things that disparage the choices patients make to pursue an alternative therapy or not take a recommended drug. I've had students, nurses, and physicians privately call choices to not vaccinate or take a certain medicine "ignorant" or "stupid"--sometimes with venom--as though the patient's choice is a personal attack on the clinician himself.

Recently I've begun to ask myself, "Who are we 'fighting' against?"

I think I mentioned previously that I had a patient who died of breast cancer because she would not pursue the usual treatment of surgery and chemotherapy. I was sad when I learned about her eventual death, but I was not angry with her about it. She was intelligent, and she had a number of personal reasons she wished to avoid the customary treatments. I discussed my concerns with her, but she remained adamant, and alas, she died for it. But that was her path, her story, and she chose to walk that path and tell her story in her way. It was not about me.

So why do so many doctors and nurses think it is about them?

I get it. It can hurt to see people do things that don't work. You think this doesn't happen to me? In my world, not doing homeopathy causes active harm (and despite the claims of some so-called skeptics, I have seen it occur enough times over 20 years that my observations carry some weight). I won't get into the "why?" of that; I'll just say that this thing cuts both ways. The only difference? I don't take it personally. Medicine's not a cause. It's a walk.

It bugs me no end, all this talk of "convincing" people that something's "right" and another thing is "wrong" and by extension the "wrong" things are "fads" or "quackery." Mainstream docs and nurses want to fight against patients' choices. Me? I wish I could convince them that there's no fighting to be done here. Rather, engage. And engagement means sharing facts, sharing the pros and cons of a therapy, and then, if refused, aid the patient in getting the best out of the choice they do wish to make.

Now I will say that model of medical caring takes some time and patience. It takes knowledge. And it can turn out in unpredictable ways. These are not features that are welcomed at The Factory. They are not features that reflect well on the public's health, but then my "patient" is not the public. It's a person. That clarity helps me sleep well at night. I don't toss and turn because Mr. Smith won't do what the research says is generally good in aggregate data sets of thousands of individual research subjects.

I am aware that some choices may have an impact on the general public's health and safety. Vaccination is said by many to be such an example. "If you don't immunize against such and such, it harms everyone..." well, yes and no. In cases like these I have to remind people that first, the public is not my patient, and second, often such impacts are overstated and the consequences are not so dire. It's as if a few people don't immunize against whooping cough will lead to the deaths of thousands. As I reported in a previous post, that vaccine may not work as well as we thought--so where are all these deaths then?

But then I think that some people need to feel like they are fighting a good fight, so fighting against their patients' "bad" choices feels good to them. I treated a lot of AIDS patients. I felt like I was fighting a good fight--against AIDS, not against some of my patients who made choices that didn't work out, but that did accord with their story.

Good research helps to guide us. It suggests what things work well, and what things may not work as well. But new research comes along and we have to adjust our "helpful" directives. It does not personalize care very much, but it does make The Factory efficient, and in the aggregate, it appears things are improving--but such general improvements in large numbers speak not at all to a person's private health journey.

"Good practice" is a summary statement that informs us about what works in most people most of the time within a set of limitations that are dictated by what practice research gets funded, a slow-to-change medical culture, and the demands of moving people efficiently through The Factory.

I try to help my students get their heads around this. After all, Nursing is not about getting people to "do what I tell you," rather it is to help people see what will help them survive and thrive, and to do so within their own "story". Such a story may involve their own legends ("My uncle took those drugs and he got terribly ill from them"), their own religion and spirituality (as in some who refuse certain procedures or drugs because of their beliefs), and their personal and family ties, as well as their sense of self.

I tell my students, it is very arrogant for us to see our patients otherwise. Nursing actually has a theory that addresses this--Imogene King's theory of goal attainment. The "goal" we wish to reach is the patient's, not ours, and it's arrived at by mutual agreement. This does not mean we do whatever the patient wants. It doesn't mean we let people actively ruin themselves. After all, no fresh hip replacement patient wants to get up and do physical therapy. We coerce them to it, good naturedly one hopes!

But it also means we aren't "fighting" against them. We're not soldiers. We're guides.

With patients, this means listening, understanding, and accepting what their goals are, and having the humility to realize that the story they wish to tell may not be the story we thought we would tell about them.

*By the way, to view a counterargument that suggests that some diets can reduce or eliminate heart disease, see this video by Dr. Dean Ornish.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pertussis Vaccine May Not Work as Advertised  


At the recent annual meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Infectious Diseases (ESPID) in Madrid Dr. Stanley Plotkin, of the Global Pertussis Initiative, gave a report that the vaccine against this disease seems to drop in effectiveness as children grow into adolescence. Pertussis is also known commonly as "whooping cough" for the spastic fits of coughing followed by the classic "whoop" often heard as the sufferer gasps for breath at the end of the fit.

This comes as no surprise. I've been a nurse for 30 years, a nurse practitioner for 20 years of that time, and I've seen cases of whooping cough, or some milder variation of it, every year for decades. The first time I saw it was in the emergency room where I worked as a nurse, and the doctors told me this happened sometimes, even in vaccinated persons.

This was in the late 1980s, after a version of the vaccine was developed that contained no actual cells of the bacteria (Bordetella pertussis)--and was called "acellular" (A-CELL-yoo-ler) pertussis vaccine. Previously, the version developed early in the 20th century was a mix of whole cells that had been killed. The problem was side effects, as the vaccine contained a more potent mixture of substances that could initiate immunity, but also initiated more harmful side effects in some recipients. So the acellular type, which contained only certain fractions of the immune-activating pertussis bacteria, was invented.

So by the late 1990s, as a nurse practitioner, I started seeing more "failed" pertussis vaccinations. This makes sense, given what the research seems to show: By the late 1990s you could expect that younger people with the "safer" vaccine mixture were old enough to be seen in a young adult medical practice. Dr. Plotkin's evidence is persuasive, citing studies done in both animals and humans that suggest that the vaccine tends to moderate symptoms, but may not protect against getting the infection. Researchers with the Kaiser Permanente insurance group in California found that protection from pertussis falls to 69% after the first year of vaccination to 9% by the fourth year after.

The report goes on to suggest several strategies for improving immunization of people for this disease, which involve coming up with a better vaccine, adding "adjuvants" (chemicals that irritate the immune system into a stronger immune response) and increasing the frequency of vaccination shots for teenagers and adults.

I take away two messages from this report.

First: I told ya so. Clinicians have, in my view, been overselling both the necessity and the effectiveness of vaccines. I believe this has been done because there's a collective belief in the value of this approach to public health, which enables clinicians to collectively ignore or downplay the importance of things like access to nutritious food, clean water (think: Flint, Michigan!), the inherent inequity in our society between the well-off and the poor, and the lack of health access for the poor and people of color. In short, it's a medical solution to a problem which is in large part due to political and social causes. It's a band-aid.

I'm not saying vaccines are worthless. I'm not saying they shouldn't be used. I am saying that we've created a blame cycle that places the burden for disease prevention on parents, requires vaccination as a public health measure, consistently ignores variant vaccine experiences, and can proceed--guilt free--in the face of gross social inequity regarding access to the things that best support health. We push vaccine programs, while states cut funding for everything from school lunches, to school nurses, to pre-K programs, after school programs, and adequate teacher salaries. Politicians shut down initiatives to address a grossly inadequate minimum wage. We jail parents--especially fathers--for trivial drug offenses, even while assuring that the schools their now-fatherless children attend will be underfunded. In short, we can blame parents for one small disease while many more damaging "diseases" go unaddressed.

Second, to paraphrase a common theme these days, I don't think we can "shot" our way out of infectious diseases. The model we have of immunizing to prevent, and giving more and more potent antibiotics to treat, infections is not sustainable. I'm not saying we shouldn't have an armory with some important immunizations. I'm not saying that antibiotics should never be used--heck, I prescribe them myself sometimes! What I am saying is that we need to bring two things to health care: more imagination and more justice.

More imagination would include recognizing and supporting alternatives to The Factory's current care model (see "A few quick bits" from May 7, 2017 for more on "The Factory"). I have used homeopathic remedies successfully to treat whooping cough. It doesn't always work, but then I have other things I can add, including herbals, to improve the experience until it passes. Chinese medicine and similar medical alternatives can also be effective. Despite a mountain of evidence supporting chiropractic for back pain, "Regular Medicine" often ignores that this option even exists--I rarely see MDs developing any network of local, trusted chiropractors (or any responsible alternative medicine providers) to whom they can refer patients suffering from the musculo-skeletal or other persistent problems we all experience so commonly.

More justice would have to include more elements of society than just doctors and nurses. It would need to include the public, politicians, members of industry and so on. It's a society-wide project. Indeed, most of the things we have defeated here in America--tuberculosis, cholera, parasitic diseases, AIDS-related deaths--are still widespread in many poorer parts of the world, mainly for lack of resources. While vaccination programs do help, they do not help as much as simply treating other countries fairly in the world marketplace.

The ESPID meeting this year revealed a sobering truth about vaccination in general: it's not as simple as it appeared to Louis Pasteur in the 19th Century. Indeed, in his time a lot of people drew water from public wells, sewer systems were often inadequate, indoor plumbing hardly existed, and doctors hardly ever washed their hands before touching their patients. It took a nurse--Florence Nightingale--to recognize that fresh air, healthy food, clean water, and sanitary hospital wards were necessary to stem the tide of infections at the war hospital at Scutari, Crimea. In those times, it's hardly a wonder that vaccination seemed like a magic bullet. But even then, it wasn't.

I would encourage the parents in my practice, the next time your kid comes up for vaccination with "Tdap" or "DTaP" (two of the vaccines given at certain times depending on age) if the doctor even knows about this report from ESPID. What do they have to say about them? I don't think they'll back down from the recommended vaccine. To be fair, in some cases they shouldn't, because some kids are at risk for severe consequences from whooping cough. I'm more interested in knowing what sort of conversation ensues. I tell my students: don't scold. Don't browbeat parents with data. Don't lay a guilt trip on them. Engage.

It would be interesting to find out how the doctors and nurses, when faced with an evidence-based question, actually respond. You can email me at or comment on this blog.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Alternative Therapies and Cancer

I was listening to Science Friday a few days ago and heard about a study out of Yale that found that those folks who use alternative therapies instead of standard medical therapies to treat their cancer are twice as likely to die from their cancer. So I thought: "This would a be a great thing to blog about," and I looked it up on the internet. Here's a sample of what came up...

I did my best to blank out the banner ad there. Don't want to impugn any company that wants to advertise on! But look at that headline. It seems rather broad, don't you think? It could sound like any alternative therapy in the service of cancer treatment doubles the risk of death. You could read it as "choosing alternative cancer therapy instead of" rather than "in addition to" standard treatment is a risky venture.

In the writer's defense, it did go on to state exactly that, but you know how it is these days. With memes and clickbait and flashy headlines bouncing around on everyone's Facebook feed or Twitter account or randomly popping up when you're googling "alternative medicine", it's easy to see how this might be interpreted.

So I used my fantastic university access to pull the article (which is in electronic publication as of August 10th for a planned release date in print of January 2018). I'll add that to Science Friday's John Dankosky's credit (who was filling in for regular host Ira Flatow) he was careful during his segment to make sure that listeners understood that this was the use of alternative medicine (AM) instead of standard therapy (ST--chemo, radiation, and surgery).

Here's what I found.

First, the researchers did not do a prospective study. That is, they didn't subject cancer patients to randomized treatments of AM versus ST--that would be unethical anyway! What they did do was examine the records of some 560 patients who got ST for 4 types of cancer: prostate, breast, lung, and colon, and matched them to the records of patients who were similar in age, sex, etc. but who opted instead for AM alone to treat their cancer. Ok, so far, so good. The groups were similar enough.

They looked at 5-year survival. This is a pretty standard measure of successful cancer treatment. Basically, if you live 5 years after treatment, you're probably good to go. Here's what they found...

58% of the people in their sample who chose exclusively AM had survived for at least 5 years, in contrast to 78% for all 4 cancers. In statistics, there's a thing called "hazard ratio"--basically, the risk of a chosen hazard (in this case, death). This ratio has to be compared to an "index standard" which is given the number "1". This "1" represents the hazard under standard conditions. The standard condition the authors chose was ST. So, statistically, people choosing AM alone had a hazard ratio of 2.21 to 2.50* or they suffered the "hazard"--death--at twice the rate of those choosing ST.

But there's more.

The study broke out the data and is publishing "survival curves" for all patients and survival by each of the four types. This gets interesting.

Colorectal cancer survival had the widest gap between ST (about 77% survival) and AM (about 30%) at 7 years of follow up.**  The narrowest gap between choosing ST versus AM was prostate cancer, at about 90% and 84% surviving 7 years, respectively. Breast cancer had the clearest display of results clearly favoring ST, more or less matching the overall curves I discussed earlier. Lung cancer looked the worst, with ST survival at about 35% and AM at about 12%. Other cancers? Well, they weren't examined so we don't know.

There's a lot we can ask and say here. What fraction of the deaths may have occurred because of the ST? After all, the commonly-used cancer drug doxorubicin can cause fatal heart failure in some unlucky recipients. This was not able to be teased out of this type of study. The authors note that prostate cancer cases were often early stage and followup--even out to 7 years--may have been too short. However one wonders to what extent an ineffective but largely harmless AM choice might have on reducing prostate cancer deaths compared to ST, which is much more likely to cause serious side effects.

Of note, the striking difference in breast and colon cancer survival rates may reflect the very good protocols now in place for these types of cancer, especially when caught early. Contrast this with lung cancer, which fares poorly with ST anyway. The study also isn't able to highlight individual stories of success with AM--and I have found that such stories are a big driver in why people tend to consider AM-alone as a possible treatment option in cancer. One of the big reasons people say they want to consider AM alone is their impression that ST "poisons" the body, and makes it harder for the body to fight the cancer on its own. In some cases they may be right, but in the aggregate, it seems it is generally not true, at least for some types of cancer.

On my website, under the Medical Conditions section, I share my view that when a cancer has good protocols and high rates of cure, it makes sense to do the ST and use AM as a supplemental therapy to strengthen the system and reduce side effects and the long term effects of ST's like chemo. When someone has a cancer with a poor prognosis under ST, the calculation becomes more difficult. AM alone may be worth a go. If anything, this study tends to reinforce what I was taught in homeopathic training and what I have observed in practice.

The authors argue that the results of this study can be used as a tool to discuss with newly-diagnosed patients with cancer, or with those presenting after a period of time when they've been trying AM exclusively. You know, like, "Oh yes, a study found that using alternative medicine alone to fight cancer means you're twice as likely to die of it." That's efficient if a doctor wants to convince someone to suck it up and take the chemo, but it's hardly a fair and accurate discussion of the results. I don't argue here for AM as a singular cancer treatment--after all, this study didn't state what "alternatives" to ST were used by the cases examined in the study. I suspect the "alternatives" were all over the place. In my practice I have found that "alternative" may mean anything from isopathic homeopathy, to a whole foods diet, to antineoplastons, to healing with crystals, to barking at the moon.

Thus perhaps this study is more about "proving" the superiority of regular medicine to anything else. The authors probably didn't mean to make that socio-political leap on purpose, but no analysis of this study would be complete without paying attention to that point.

The authors meant well, I think. Cancer physicians get really demoralized by the endless parade of deaths they witness. Cancer treatment is still very much a work in progress. So it makes sense that this study would be seen as a way of shaking some "sense" into people who are either scared of ST, or convinced AM is better--or both. However I would argue that it's only part of the story, and the science on this is by no means complete. This study isn't the end of the matter.

* This range reflects the 2 types of statistical tests the authors used and is too technical to be of any use to us here. I included both numbers for completeness--and it gets at the "twice the risk" piece being quoted in the news.

** The average followup of all cancer cases in the study was just over 5 years, but some cases had less or more, so individual graphs show this variability. It's not an error.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The "Death" of Obamacare?

Well, the summer's now at it's slackest moment: It's August and all the representatives are home for the rest of the summer...after having failed to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act of 2010. It's common knowledge now that conservative politicians consistently ran on promises to do so. Now that their caucus hasn't been able to come up with a passable plan, Obamacare remains in place while the states and the President try to figure out ways to sabotage it.

Meanwhile, the ACA is more popular than it's ever been!

There's way too much to say about the ACA and the tortuous process of getting from what came before to what we have now. There's been so much written and said about it: It's good. It's bad. It's merely an insurance market reform law. It's socilism. It's "imploding"...or it isn't. With that said, I will focus on here is what the symbol of the ACA says about how our society is evolving.

A few general facts (1):

  • Despite our ardent love for a "market-based" private health care system, Medicare remains extremely popular among those older Americans likely to vote against changes in the health care system, and for the repeal of the ACA.
  • Despite spending more money per-capita on health care than any other country (Switzerland is a distant 2nd place), many of our health care outcomes (e.g., life expectancy) lag behind our lesser-spending neighbors in the developed world.
  • Americans pay more for medical technology and prescription drugs than citizens of any other country.
  • It's not all bad: we have a lower cancer death rate than most countries. We visit the doctor less often than people in developed countries (so why is insurance so expensive?)

So in the 2000s it became apparent that having tens of millions of people uninsured was both a drain on our economy, and a kind of shadow tax on people with insurance, since the payees--doctors, hospitals, and medical products services--weren't simply going to accept non-payment from those uninsured people. The costs were "shared" by charging higher premiums to insurance holders.

Although many developed countries have a single health care payer system--Canada and Britain are the common examples--not all do. Moreover, as President Obama said at a press conference prior to the ACA becoming law, health care is about 1/6th of the American economy. You can't just change that overnight. Fair enough.

But it seems that, in spite of all the protest against the ACA (it was never worse off than about 47% popularity), now that it is threatened, a lot of people are speaking in favor of it. It's funny, I still routinely hear from some patients, and many nurses and doctors that "Obamacare" is what's causing all the problems in health care. Truth is, some of those problems are caused by Congress not fixing some of the problems that cropped up with it as it rolled out. Republican congressmen were too busy trying to repeal it entirely to take the time to fix it. Besides, if they fixed it, then they couldn't use it as foil against Democrats.

If to some this sounds like an editorial, it isn't. I'm just stating the facts (and by the way, none of these facts pay any tribute to Democrats, so I'm not writing a nakedly partisan essay here).

So this is where we are. Why?

Ok, now I'll editorialize!

For a long time, we were a frontier culture in a vast land. While we've always had differences, some severe (anyone remember something called the Civil War?) we've always had this sense of optimism, that just over the horizon, there lies a new land that offers a hope for a new day. Over the course of the 20th century, that frontier came to an end, and now even Alaska is settled all the way to the North Slope. Yes, there are still broad tracts of empty land. There are still new tomorrows to the west (or the east, if you're already out west). But by and large, we feel each other, our neighbors and our nemeses, people we know and people who seem strange and foreign to us, and there's no place to go.

So we've become more tribal, and this has been abetted by the internet. Demographic studies have shown we are tending to move to be with those "like us." Political districts reflect this as well, and a growing number of congressional districts are essentially uncontested. Wealth disparity continues to grow--America has a high disparity between the rich and the rest of us, higher than Europe and Canada, and even higher than much of northern Africa; we're better in that respect than South America and China, but roughly equivalent with Russia (of all places!)--so many of us feel a pinch.

A social conversation has begun to arise about this. What do we do now that we have nowhere else to go, nowhere else to conquer? How should society regulate itself? Am I responsible for my neighbor? One of the recent issues debated in the attempt to repeal the ACA concerned private buyers of insurance on the exchanges who didn't like paying for a basic menu of health care services that they might not ever use--like a man paying for a policy that must include maternity care.

On the face of it, it does seem kinda stupid...until one factors in the relatively low fraction of the cost of that care as it is distributed among many thousands of ratepayers, versus the much smaller fraction of ratepayers who actually use it (women of childbearing age) who would be charged much more without those non-user contributors. Funny, I think was a guy named Jesus who said something about loving our neighbors--what did he mean?

Am I responsible for my neighbors?

If one teases out the scenario, the sense of it sharpens. The man, paying a fractional cost for maternity care, actually gains benefit in unseen ways, like the fact that affordable maternity care lessens infant sickness and death and thus removes hidden costs from society at large--and thus from him as well, at least incrementally. Treating health care costs like an a la carte menu pays homage to our rugged American individualism, but it neglects the complexity of a society whose frontier safety valve shut off nearly 100 years ago. In the end, we all pay anyway.

How should society regulate itself?

In the past doctors were private agents, and so were hospitals (where they even existed). Insurance companies often operate on a for-profit basis, as do ambulances, some hospitals, many nursing homes, drug companies, and the list goes on. But that profit is made on goods and services that an increasing number of Americans see as a "public good", or a "right". Recently-convicted investor Martin Shkreli raised the price of dapsone, a very old and very generic (but also very necessary) drug by 5000% before public shaming caused him to dial it back a bit (it's still unnecessarily expensive)--because he could. It's no crime to price gouge, even when it comes to a matter as serious and as necessary as medical care. Capitalism is king. Or is it?

I have no issue with people getting paid, and I have no issue with private concerns existing to develop and provide unique and valuable services to the sick--heck I'm one of those people who do so! But I think one has to also be aware that the massive scale of some enterprises in health care, the importance of some of its products (like dapsone, or Epi-Pens, or Narcan), and the interconnectedness of that industry, combined with emerging expectations of Americans, has caused us to begin to entertain the possibility that rampant health care capitalism may not be the solution that many believe it is. Maybe it isn't especially moral to get as rich as possible on the backs of sick people.

Finally, I think it is dawning on people that we struggle with an essentially human, and especially American, sense of privilege. We want the best; who doesn't? But when does the "best" begin to come at the direct cost of another, and when--because of that interconnectedness I spoke of earlier--does it actually begins to incur indirect costs to us? 

People say they don't want the high taxes that come with single payer health care, but studies have shown we're essentially paying a "tax" anyway, in the form of high premiums. But instead of that money going to the common good, it goes into the pockets of dirtbags like Martin Shkreli! How is that better?

People say they don't want their health care "rationed"--and yet they seem to have accepted exactly that from heath insurers, who deny unneeded MRIs, CAT scans, new drugs, and unproven therapies. Is that rationing, or is it rationality? In the latter case, people seem to be willing to pay a "tax" to have their care rationed (or rational)--and give a nice extra bit that goes to corporate profit, or to the multimillion-dollar salary of a non-profit executive. (2)

Personally, I'd rather pay a tax I know is going to make my health care easy and portable, and keep the "extra bit" in my own pocket!

But hey, I'm fine. I have good insurance and a job unlikely to end abruptly. But I guess bad things could happen to me too, so I have a stake in this I guess. People need to start thinking more like this in order to hedge against the inevitable--and needing health care is pretty much inevitable, even if for reasons political, religious, or personal one were to choose not to use it. (3) So we better start having this conversation more explicitly. It needs to stop being about Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives and greens and libertarians. The conversation needs to be about "real" things. How can we talk about the utility of a "free market" when that market is clearly opaque? (pardon the pun) What are the real, if indirect, costs to each of us when millions go uninsured or underinsured? Whay are we really paying so much for medicines? (Hint: it ain't research and development.)

Next time you're ill, try pricing the estimated total cost of the affair beforehand. The answer you'll get: "We can't know that until we see you." Show up and ask, and they'll say "We have to run some tests." Inquire on the price of those, and you'll find no answer forthcoming. Being sick isn't what it was. Like our former frontier landscape, health care in America has modernized: it can do a lot, and there's a reasoned approach to doing it. Maybe it's time we stopped treating ourselves like we're living in the 19th century. Maybe we need to start talking about how we're going to deal with reality and stop talking about if we'll deal with it.

(1) For the sake of time, I didn't cite these, but the facts can be verified easily with Google searches on the relevant terms. Or you can take my word for it.
(2) The CEO of Blue Shield of California was paid over $3,500,000 in 2015.
(3) Wake up at 3 AM with appendicitis, and see if you still feel like health care is a "choice" you can opt to not use!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Vaccination, Health Care Workers & The Law

Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
I just read an interesting article from one of my regular web news services, this one from The Clinical Advisor. Their regular feature Legal Adviser (July 13, 2017) shares a case of a nurse who was fired for refusing an employer-mandated Tdap (tetanus, diptheria, pertussis) booster vaccine for all employees at the hospital. Part of the driver for this was known occurrences of outbreaks of pertussis--whooping cough--which still occur despite the fact that most children are routinely immunized against whooping cough. In fact I still see some patients and families with this condition, which is uncomfortable, but usually self-limiting and non-fatal. (Even though this shouldn't happen, it does. So much for the power of vaccination.)

In vulnerable people, like infants and children, older adults, or people who are sick or have faulty immune systems, it can be very serious or fatal. So it's easy to understand why hospitals want their employees to be immune to it. If one would come down with it, they could certainly infect such vulnerable individuals.

The summary of the case is that a nurse didn't want to get the booster. The hospital wanted a note from her doctor as to why she shouldn't receive the vaccine. The nurse suffered from various allergies and a condition called eosinophilic esophagitis (basically a kind of autoimmune heartburn) and was anxious the vaccine would cause problems related to these conditions. The doctor issued a letter stating the nurse was "medically exempt."

The hospital said this was not enough. They listed the 9 conditions officially listed as reasons to not get the vaccine. They wanted the physician to be more specific. He wrote back to the hospital about the patient's history of "various allergies" and how she was "terrified" of getting the vaccine.

The hospital's employee health services coordinator told the nurse that the doctor's note did not meet the definition of medical contra-indication detailed in the product's official literature and told her to get the vaccine or get fired.

The nurse declined to comply and was fired.

She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the suit was dismissed in Federal Court, because the employer did try to accommodate the employee: Her provider was to state which specific condition, of the 9 listed, the nurse had in order to exempt her from getting the booster shot.

The Legal Power of Words...

I spared you the technical details of the conditions because they weren't anything this plaintiff had, and are mostly pretty uncommon, so most people don't have them either. Game over? Not quite.

The hospital wanted one of those words. The physician's second letter emphasized the nurse's "anxiety" about the vaccine. That wasn't going to satisfy them. So what could the physician have done differently?

The last condition on the list was "altered immune competence." The plaintiff had this, that is if one considered "competence" to be a system that functions as it should. Typically, regular health care professionals--doctors, nurses, etc.--would consider "competence" to be like "strong enough" and would perhaps interpret "altered immune competence" to mean "lowered immunity." However "altered" means just that--not the regular way it works. The nurse's immune system certainly wasn't working as it should, she had allergies, environmental sensitivities, and an autoimmune condition!

I read this article and decided that I would have responded to the hospital's second request for detailed information by stating that the patient has "altered immune competence"--which is technically accurate from this professional's point of view. Using that logic I could build my case: The patient's condition of "altered immune competence" makes it likely that a revaccination may lead to untoward or catastrophic medical consequences, based on the manufacturer's own data. Further I would have suggested appropriate accommodation (such as reassigning the nurse or asking her to wear a mask during disease outbreaks publicized in the public health notices of her locality).

Fact is, I probably would have done this at the outset, which would have nixed the back and forth communication between my office and the employer. I can't promise this would work, but I think it has a better chance of succeeding, because employers--especially hospitals--are exceedingly legalistic. They also don't like to lose. They want people to comply (sounds like a topic for another blog post!).

This case fell apart because the court found that the ADA doesn't require accommodation for "purely personal reasons" (the nurse didn't want the vaccine and was anxious about it). The court further ruled that "Whether or not the hospital should 'require employees to obtain the vaccine is not a question for the Court to determine.'" Which makes sense. They are judges, not doctors.

Take Home Messages
First, if you have a problem with an employer-required health act, like a vaccination, ask yourself why. If it's personal preference, don't lead with that. It's a loser.

Second, even though there are usually specific reasons listed in the "official" literature for not receiving such interventions, like a given vaccine, there's usually some wiggle room, because many "specific" reasons aren't as specific as they sound. People need to discuss these in a more effective way. For example, the nurse could have asked her physician which of the 9 conditions he or she was concerned about, or potentially could be applicable.

Third, realize that employers have concerns too. They don't want to intrude on the particular medical relationship of individual employees, each of whom is unique. And they want to be covered legally. The reason for refusal needs to be, and appear in print, legitimate.

Occasionally I am asked to issue a letter of medial exemption for patients, usually kids, to avoid certain vaccines. I never issue such letters unless there is a legitimate reason to do so. However, as my first duty is to the patient, I must weigh each request in the context of the total medical picture. Many of my patients have some alteration of immunity. Some such "alterations" may be easily recognized--such as immune depression due to chemotherapy. Others are more nuanced, such as cases of multiple allergies and sensitivities, or ongoing treatment for a condition related to immune competence. This could include a host of things such as asthma, repeated infections, and other immune-related issues.

Thus, I advise parents/patients that not getting a vaccine comes with certain risks. I state this in my letter and in my chart notes. I also use clear, definitive language that helps the school nurse or the employer to understand how the medical condition of the person is related to the vaccine and its risks. I often advise delay rather than a permanent exemption. After all, I don't know how long it will take to treat someone. Let's wait until things stabilize and re-evaluate.

So I'll go back to my first take-home message to come to my last: If no real contra-indication for something like a vaccine or other employer safety measure exists, then patients need to be prepared for what happened to the nurse in this story. We can believe anything we wish, but others are not required to believe it too. If one chooses to live a certain way, one must sometimes accept that consequences attach to that choice. Fortunately, there are enough folks out there like myself who can accept the people whose choices stand apart from the crowd.

Here's wishing you lots of good health...and few "employer mandates"!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Medical Marijuana

So Pennsylvania's medical marijuana supply chain is getting up and running. Licenses have been awarded. A list of diseases has been approved--you must have an approved diagnosis to qualify for a prescription. Here's a link to the list. Soon, growers in PA will begin producing the product, and I suppose some physicians will apply to become registered prescribers of marijuana as well.

Samples of THC and CBD in a lab.
The state's law is restrictive. Only "CBD oil" products can be used. CBD, or cannabidiol (kanna-bid-DI-ol), is one psychoactive component of the plant, and mainly it is calming and sedative. It's also said to regulate how THC acts in the brain--THC being the psychoactive component that makes people high. Smokeable products won't be legal.

A lot of the drive for legalization of medical cannabis in Pennsylvania was from a group of parents of children with various seizure disorders, some parents of children with autism, and so forth. Of course there were other advocates, but really, even the hardest of conservative legislators has difficulty telling sick kids they can't have a medicine that works. This link to Family Practice News shares conference coverage during which one physician in California reports seeing deep changes in some children with autism who use marijuana. It's not stated how they use it (I doubt it is smoked!) and the article also discusses other novel uses of nutritionals and drugs in these children.

Why Medical Marijuana?

People ask me--colleagues, patients--what I think of medical marijuana. There's a lot to unpack in that question.

The drug is still illegal in a large number of states. The federal government still lists it as a Schedule 1 drug (no medical use and highly addictive--of course, neither of these is true, but I won't get into the racist and protectionist mindset in the early 20th century that led to this designation).

Like many herbals, it's not just one drug. Dronabinol has been commercial available for prescription for over 20 years. I used to prescribe a lot of it when I treated AIDS patients. But patients using cannabis say that it isn't the same. Chemically, dronabinol is in fact THC, but again, when you are using the weed, you're getting dozens of other substances. The medical effects of these have barely been studied.

Marijuana makes people high. What does it mean to be "high"? Is it wrong to enjoy a pleasant sensation while you are also addressing your pain, anxiety, depression, stiffness, or other symptoms that you say are treated by smoking (or eating) pot? My students struggle with this. Is it a professional prejudice that we don't want people to feel "good" when they feel better from the medication?

Is "medical marijuana" an excuse to get high? If so, what's wrong with that? Do we have to medicalize experience in order to allow adults to enjoy things that they like? If a professional believes people should be sober at all times (which is a legitimate point of view), do they have the right to impose that on their patients?

Marijuana is among the safest of mind-altering substances. There's never been a fatal overdose. Yet alcohol and tobacco cause many deaths, and are nonetheless legal. Many prescription drugs are known to cause fatalities. Of course, one ought not drive or operate power tools when one is high..., but then isn't that the warning on a bottle of Oxycontin too?

I don't have a problem with marijuana being used for symptom relief, but I think its proponents overstate its effectiveness. It's not for everybody; especially because in many places it is still a black market product, you don't know what you're getting. But if one likes to get high, maybe that's not super important. After all, once the beer and wine start to flow at a party, doesn't everybody (who drinks) feel "better"? To most folks, it matters not that Rolling Rock is being served instead of Bud Lite--it's still alcohol!

I have a big problem with people who think this shouldn't be an option for patients. To me that is just imposing one's own beliefs on others. I'm not against some of the concerns, such as how should we approach this in children? Where does inhaled (smoked) cannabis fit in, when we're talking about health? How regulated should it be? These are all legitimate questions.

From a safety standpoint, I have little to say against its use by patients (mine or anyone else's). I recall warning some of my AIDS and hepatitis patients that their existing criminal records would make buying weed on the street a hazard to their freedom! It's said to interfere with homeopathic remedies, yet I have observed this effect is variable: for some, pot antidotes the remedy, for most it just tends to cause a premature remedy failure, and repeating the remedy works in both cases, except those in which the cannabis use is pathological. (Here I would define "pathological" use as daily, heavy use, perhaps exceeding 1-2 grams/day, or use multiple times a day. This is my definition as there is no consensus on what constitutes "heavy" use. It also exempts those who use cannabis strictly for symptom control. As you can see, these "definitions" are slippery!)

There's good evidence that recreational cannabis use in younger people can affect both coping skill development and maturation of the brain's frontal lobes, which govern impulse control and executive function. But then lots of kids who smoked dope in high school are successful and intelligent citizens.

So when I'm asked about this, I have to frame it in terms of who is asking. Is it a patient asking about trying it for symptom control? If so, that requires an answer tailored to their medical circumstances, but unfettered by my own biases (for or against use). If it's a patient asking about recreational use, the same condition applies: There's just no evidence that modest drug use is terribly hazardous, but I might add "Don't operate your chain saw while you're high!" (And this applies whether you're high on Afghan Kush or Bud Lite.) If it's someone who just wants my opinion, I am freer to admit that I think marijuana should be fully legal for both medical and recreational use.

It's safer than tobacco, alcohol, and to some extent safer than other prescription drugs that are often used to medicate symptoms. There are times when it should be avoided, but this shouldn't be imposed by government, except in the case of children. It should be studied, but studied in ways that account for all of its complexities--and this should obtain when we study any herbal medicine! Legalization, where it has happened, has invited all sorts of improvements, including research, but also including safety: buying correctly labelled, unadulterated cannabis in a store or dispensary is much safer than buying God-knows-what from a guy with a backpack who may or may not be armed!

Pennsylvania is pretty conservative, so it doesn't surprise me that we're late to the table and joining that table oh-so-slowly. I hope that the parochial, racist, oppressive rationales that have driven the Drug War and have maintained prohibition on this herb are dying off. I predict that the changes are going to come faster, and that in a few more years (and election cycles), politicians won't find it convenient to maintain the status quo. I only hope that when that happens, cannabis--medical or recreational--won't end up completely captive to either the pharmaceutical industry or the multinational corporations that produce and market alcohol and tobacco.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Medicine as a "Black Art"

I got an email blast today--one of more than a dozen I get each day--from Medpage Today. A medical blogger and physician, Christopher Johnson, asks "Is medicine still a black art?" He describes the well-known idea that for centuries physicians practiced medicine on the basis of theories about how the body works. This continued until the 19th century, when the scientific method matured to the point at which we began to have evidence for how the body actually does work. The era of Scientific Medicine was born.

Johnson asks a compelling question about medicine using a label which suggests "magic"--basically a kind of inspired guesswork founded on mental pictures of how Nature works. Black art connotes wizardry and a connection to divine power that in turn influences Nature on our behalf. Astrology and the magical practices of various belief systems are other examples. "Black" of course suggests "dark" or "evil", but really it can also mean "unknown" or "mysterious." A "black box".

That article cites another article from February of this year in The Atlantic which details the conflicts between evidence-based medicine, the vastness of medicine and the individual ways in which we all experience health and disease, and the human desire for hope and cure.

If you get a chance, follow the link and check out the article, which I included here in the interest of any of my patients who may have been told to get something or other done when they might not really need it!

The gist is this:

  • First, although we've made a great effort to study medicine's methods for what works and what might not (or even causes harm), we still have a long way to go.
  • Second, A lot of what passes for "evidence-based medicine" is weaker than we're often led to believe.
  • Third, human nature--both among doctors and patients--drives more of what we do (and do not) more than good evidence.
I teach research methods, so for me a lot of this doesn't come as a surprise. Research findings are routinely published as "breakthroughs"--but a lot of that is hype. Research findings aren't often replicated, to verify earlier work. And of course negative findings (that is, what didn't work) is often ignored, because it's more interesting to publish articles about things that did work!

But what interested me more about the Medpage Today article was the use of this term "black art" in the title. 

Homeopathy could be considered a black art, and certainly most docs view it as worse than that. I find it interesting that most positive clinical research about homeopathic treatment is ignored or dismissed as flawed. It seems that most allopathic medical research suffers from the same problem. 

I have and continue to practice both homeopathic, and when it's needed, allopathic medicine as part of my nursing practice, and one thing I have learned is that patients are individuals, problems are often strange, and the methods for addressing both of these concerns still do rely more often on art than science. One thing I emphasize with my students is that Evidence Based Practice (whether nursing or medicine) is both non-individualized and probabilistic.

Ok, what I mean is that EBP examines groups of people, not individuals, and its conclusions are aimed at increasing the likelihood of a good outcome, and minimizing the chance of a bad outcome. In short, it assumes that all people are pretty much the same (at least in the researched population), and it doesn't offers any certainties--it merely offers good and bad chances.

I think it's important to remind my students of this because as clinicians, our aim at the end of the day is to treat people, not groups. One size does not fit all. Of course I don't mean to excuse the practices of providers described in the Atlantic article for engaging mass practices based on faulty evidence! One such practice is the use of the blood pressure medicine atenolol to prevent a first heart attack in people with somewhat elevated blood pressure. You can read their article for details. But my point is: people are still unique, and we ought to be careful giving people things that could potentially harm them when our certainty-of-outcome is only slightly better than placing a bet at a roulette table.

The problem is two-fold. Medical providers are being rewarded for following practices that may not always be well-supported by science--at least not as well-founded as we are taught. Furthermore, much of the evidence we do get is skewed by small sample sizes, greed, publication bias, and the low rewards that flow from health care science that emphasizes non-medical interventions, like diet and exercise. 

Which brings me back to homeopathy. Granted, it's weird, and it does seem to fly in the face of classical science like chemistry and physiology. But it also has a low risk of immediate and intermediate harm, and certainly doesn't itself put people in the hospital! (Albeit sometimes homeopaths would do well to abandon homeopathy when it's not working, and use something more effective for the problem at hand.)

I like the fact that I have a lot of less harmful tools at my disposal: homeopathy, herbs, nutritionals, and of course lifestyle modification, which I try make happen with a technique called motivational interviewing, basically a fancy term for discussing with people their goals and readiness for change, and of course continually encouraging and commending them on the small changes they are willing to undertake at a given moment in their lives. Too often the lifestyle advice I hear providers give goes something like this:

You should eat better and lose some weight and stop smoking.

That's about as helpful as swinging a stick to catch butterflies!

Then there are the many stories I hear from my RNs of nurses and doctors scolding patients for not being more effective changers of their lifestyles. What could be less helpful to motivating a patient who has now achieved remembering to check her blood sugars at home than to tell her:

Humph. These aren't very good. If you don't get these down I'm going to put you on insulin shots.

There is hope. There are agents out there trying to make real sense out of the research, to give better context to what works and what doesn't. I'll be touching on some of this in coming blog posts. And while I emphasize more effective change methods like motivational interviewing and therapeutic listening with my students (I hope they'll put these into practice!) I am seeing some evidence that other clinicians are doing this too. Finally, there's more momentum pushing general hygiene measures such as decreasing one's intake of processed foods (the whole foods movement and urban gardens), getting more exercise (anything at all helps!) and getting more help to kids, such as early childhood interventions and measures to relieve poverty.

The next time you hear about a great new study that says something that sounds marvelous, especially if it's expensive and technically complex, you might think, "Really?" Maybe not.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Few Quick Bits

Well I'm back after a whirlwind month--April tends to get very busy with grading papers and projects attending to all of the other things on our to-do lists before things go quiet at campus over the summer. So here I will share a couple of things I've been saving up this past month.

Your "Brain" is Bigger than Your Brain 

Researcher Sarah Garfinkel at the University of Sussex, which I found on the site Science of Us (New York Magazine's website) has been studying the connection between our traditional "center of consciousness" and the rest of the body. In this piece from in January, Drake Baer reports on her team's findings concerning awareness of one's own heartbeat and how it influences what we think. Here's a link to the article, if you want to check it out.

The gist of it is this: We tend to think of our "mind" as residing in our brain, and the brain is an organ, and it connects with, receives information from, and sends information to our "other" organs. Garfinkel  suggests that perhaps we're thinking about this wrong, that the brain is embedded in the entire body, which is kind of an extension of the brain. More simply, your entire body is your brain. Your consciousness is just you--"balls to bone", as the The Oracle says to Neo in The Matrix.

In the article Garfinkel says,

“I think the general public kind of knows it instinctively, they know if they exercise they feel better, they know their mood changes, their cognition and memory increases; people who meditate also see changes in their cognition and emotion.... It’s a responsibility of the scientific community to better understand these mechanisms and promote them as scientific — I feel instinctively that there’s a split where people think there are ‘scientific treatments’ like drugs, and there’s these ‘alternative treatments,’ and why do we need the distinction? [emphasis mine] If we can look at body-brain mechanisms, they can be scientific treatments as well — we just don’t yet know the mechanisms.”

This isn't new, and even the research exploring this notion isn't new, and some of it goes back thousands of years. Without getting into detail here, the idea that the body and the mind are not two but one--the bodymind--is something we have intuitively grasped since the Greeks (and perhaps earlier, although I'm not historian) and certainly by the Chinese, who developed a holistic medical system that recognizes and exploits this understanding of the intraconnectedness of ourselves.

Several nurse theorists have proposed this understanding of how we are "in the world" since the 1970s: unitary beings from nerve cell to the surface of the skin, but nursing research on this concept has been limited and the notion remains more philosophical than practical. Garfinkel, and researchers like her in psychology, nursing*, and medicine as well as other disciplines are beginning to crack the code of what this might mean in a more practical sense going forward.

I'll probably return to this concept in a future piece.

7 "Questionable" Clinics

This is a piece a saw at Medscape, a webservice for physicians and nurses that specializes in practical information for practice (like, a comprehensive catalog of diseases and their presentation, work-up, and treatment--very useful), news, and opinion. (I link to it here, but it requires a sign-in, so you may have trouble getting to the original.) Author John Watson begins by saying that,

"For many of the physician contributors to the blog Science-Based Medicine..., which takes aim at unfounded medical practices and beliefs, the continued rise of integrative medicine...represents one of the most exasperating trends in contemporary healthcare."

Yes, trying to understand why so many people insist on exploring the limits of human health utilizing technologies and philosophies outside of those "approved" by the masters of The Factory is very exasperating!

Acupuncture point model
One contributor states, "Some clinics just offer acupuncture, for example, and others offer the complete buffet dinner of nonsense." Of course, he's implying that both acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine are "nonsense"--which is weird because both have good scientific evidence to demonstrate their efficacy for many conditions.** An editor at SBM adds "Integrative medicine is very good at co-opting certain science-based modalities, such as nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes, which they identify as somehow being alternative or integrative, when in reality it's just medicine."

Wow. He's a genius!

His genius would be more impressive if medical curricula actually bothered to really teach physicians how to integrate these things into their own practice, rather than jamming people end to end into 15 minute visits to fix problems that could be dealt with in more ecological ways. Physician Andrew Weil has argued for this elsewhere (and earlier): that getting people to, say, exercise isn't just about telling them to go exercise (when clearly, the physician doesn't appear to get any!), it's about a philosophy of holistic understanding of the physis, the body--or what Garfinkel might just call the Whole Brain.

These "alternatives" on their list, as the SBM editor points out, are alternatives because medicine has divested itself of imagination at the clinical bedside. Don't complain about people co-opting your schtick if you yourself have walked away from it!

The article then lists 7 clinical practices:

  • "Alternative" cancer treatments
  • Chelation
  • Stem-cell clinics
  • Ketamine clinics
  • Clinics that prescribe testosterone a lot (for pretty much everything)
  • Dental clinics that specialize in mercury filling removal and replacement

(I swear, I counted it twice and only came up with these six.)

I'm not going to comment on each of these here today. I will note that the people that Watson interviewed for the piece don't apply much discrimination to their analysis. All of the practices are just bogus, and "fraudulent." Yes, I don't care for fraud either, but one has to ask the question: if people could get hope and a listening ear from their regular doctors, don't you think there wouldn't be so much of a market for some of these practices?

I realize that some of these practices could potentially hurt some people sometimes (and I have actually seen that happen, so it is real), but regular medicine just assumes that when people get hurt within their model, it's just bad luck.

So what if my "proven" cancer treatment gave you permanent nerve pain and you died of your cancer anyway, after suffering through that misery. Just bad luck I guess!

Look, I'm not all gung-ho on a lot of the stuff in the list above, either, but then I am a homeopath, so I feel like I'm giving most of my patients the answers they seek, and a lot of the practitioners who try the stuff on that list are often just trying to do the same. At least I give them an option and some hope. Some don't benefit; most do. At the least the ones whom I couldn't help don't end up with permanent nerve pain or heart failure (cancer drugs), suicidal mania and tics (antidepressants), drug addiction (opioids), or other bad outcomes from the medicine.

I have covered this conflict before, and it's exemplified in these two pieces I caught on the internet. Medicine, as a professional culture, needs to maintain an open mind, encourage experimentation (and maybe even collude in it), and stop trying to make everything they study--and everyone else--fit into their imagined model of the world. Critics of "alternatives" to the medicine they learned in school are really criticizing something they don't want to understand, because of its implications. Those implications include slowing down, taking time, making less money, incorporating more hands-on healing, and taking some modest risks with the unknown. It may mean doctors learning to meditate, eat better, learn yoga or tai chi, and embracing the stories, cultures, health traditions, and arts of their patients.

Old timey doctors used to do this more, back before The Factory took over our medical landscape. Maybe some of these "alternative" practitioners are trying to bring it back.


*This link points to just one example of such nursing research, a study I did a few years ago, but it's just one of hundreds of examples.
** For example, I recently learned that an "approved" treatment for a certain type of leukemia--Arsenic trioxide, a remedy also found in homeopathic medicine--originated from studies of ancient Chinese medical texts. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The "Real Issues"

Earlier this month I wrote that I'd need more time to think about this issue of what's at the root of our drug problems. The other night I had the privilege of joining a speakers' panel of area complementary and alternative medicine providers at a graduate class of nurse practitioner students. One of the things that came through most clearly from all of us was the multifactorial nature of the human experience of health and disease.

Another thing that came out clearly was the dual nature of our relationships with physicians--I'll note that no physicians were on the panel. To be fair, I don't know if the instructor tried to bring a physician onto the panel, although I know who's who around here: It's likely that there simply wasn't anyone available. Both physicians whom I know actually "get" this are in various stages of retirement. One I know of would speak for one of my classroom panels at Penn State because I wouldn't pay him for it.

So that "dual nature", what about that? Well, we all agreed that physicians are often a key part of the healing journey for many people. Although most physicians I've ever know view themselves as the key part of any health journey--even though they receive little instruction in holism and therapies beyond Western biomedicine. So yes, they can be very important, but they are not the only part, and in some cases they aren't necessary at all. (In fact, sometimes they are an impediment to health!)

Conversely, trying to integrate our work with that of physicians? Well, we all agreed that's a fraught adventure, at best. After all, why would physicians, say, refer someone for Reiki? They don't even collaborate very well amongst themselves! We'd like to work more with them, but they view us as variously as unimportant parts of a plan hatched by eccentric patients, as cranks, or as nuisances. They don't understand energy medicine, chiropractic, spirituality, homeopathy, nutrition, art, dance, or culture.

Ok, ok. I'm painting them here with a rather broad brush, and I know for sure that some docs aren't described by what I'm saying here.

But don't underestimate the acculturation of physicians. Acculturation is the process of beginning with ordinary people and imbuing them with a certain cultural stamp. The acculturation process that physicians undergo is very powerful. Western biomedicine is the most powerful, and most important system. It treats diseases, and when it tries to prevent them, it relies on simple instruction to patients, which patients are expected to follow, and when they don't, physicians can feel absolved of responsibility.

It is prescriptive, and not just in the literal sense of writing drug prescriptions. Students are told they are the final word on matters of health and healing. They're "in charge". They are taught to act.

I have to say that, in person, the outward results of this acculturation are not uniform. Culture doesn't trump personality. But depending on the peculiarities of personality to yield a large crop of physicians who are spiritual, holistic, imaginative, and who think cooperatively with practitioners outside their own discipline is unlikely. Some medical schools are taking an approach closer to that proposed by Dr. Andrew Weil: a curriculum that cultivates such thinking as I detailed in this paragraph. But we're a long way from that being a universal educational goal in American medical schools.

Then there's the practical pressures faced by physicians once they graduate and begin practice. Pressures to produce revenue, pressures to adhere to "evidence-based-practice" guidelines that are based on population models, pressures to conform to a system that demands data, pressures to prescribe the newest, most expensive drugs, pressures to follow the law and also guard against liability, all of these bear on the poor guy or gal in the white coat who now works in a corporate-owned medical office in a gigantic health care system.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that most authorities estimate physician suicide at about 1 physician per day! Drug abuse rates are at or somewhat higher than the general population. So, considering both the social authority and power of being a physician and the expectations society places on our doctors, I don't find it that surprising that younger docs seem more willing to share, to collaborate with others .

Maybe they are just tired of having every-single-thing on their own shoulders. Maybe they want to spread the liability around. I don't know but whatever it is, I'm glad for it.

So like a lot of things, culture changes with time. So maybe the culture of American drug dependency will change with time too. My patients complain that doctors want to "prescribe a pill for everything" and yet so many American do just want a pill for everything. Is it any wonder we've ended up where we are?