Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Student Finds Classical Reporting on "Holistic" Medicine Still Lacking Critical Rigor

The rise of "alternative medicine," if you can claim that it has risen at all, has mostly been due to word of mouth and unwarranted exposure by an uncritical press. Seeing as how CAM itself never actually changes, it should be no surprise to anyone that neither does reporting on it. We hear the same fallacies, the same appeals to authority and tradition, and the same overweighting of anecdotal evidence over and over again.

So I wasn't even a little shocked at this typical article on the common cold.

ABCNews.com asked four holistically minded doctors what they do when they feel under the weather. Their prevention and treatment advice might help you dodge or short-circuit the next bug that comes your way.


I'm not even entirely sure where to begin. "Holistically-minded doctors?" What does that even mean? Proponents are going to spout some gibberish about doctors that "treat the whole person, not just their symptoms," but let's see what these doctors recommend to "treat the whole person."

Let's start with Dr. David Rakel, MD.

There's no firm evidence that any medication or herb will prevent the common cold, said Rakel.


Hey, cool, he's actually concerned with whether or not there's evidence for the stuff he suggests!

At the first sign of symptoms, the goal is to attack the virus early because it replicates the most within the first 48 hours, pointed out Rakel. He might drink more green tea, which appears to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. And he would also drink three big glasses of orange juice to get more vitamin C...

...besides consuming more liquids, Rakel might take 20 to 30 milligrams of zinc acetate lozenges twice a day to improve his immunity. He takes zinc only for the first two or three days of a cold, when he feels it's most effective. He might add andrographis, an herb that's sometimes called "Indian echinacea." He would take 400 milligrams of this immune-stimulating herb three times a day.

That's why when it comes to his own health he takes a shotgun approach and tries everything that has ever been suggested for treating the common cold. Vitamin C, zinc, green tea (antioxidants), and "Indian echinacea," which must be better than "Western echinacea."

At least Dr. Rakel gets an annual flu shot, but he bemoans the presence of thimerosal in flu shots. I guess the fact that thimerosal-free flu shots is not important to him, or maybe he just thinks the CDC has it all wrong.

Strike one, MD's out. Who's next? Lynne Shinto, ND. You can probably guess where this is going.

She says she thinks that too much sugar can weaken immunity...when she gets a cold, her philosophy is to let it run its course. She'll turn to the usual suspects: bed rest, more fluids and chicken soup -- or because she's Japanese-American -- miso soup with shiitake mushrooms, fungi known for their immune-strengthening compounds.

Go Lynne! You strengthen that immune system! Is that the humoral or cellularly-mediated immune system? What do you mean you don't know? You're just sure it works? Well, as long as you're treating the real cause of disease instead of just addressing symptoms, like a good holistic doctor.

These approaches may make the symptoms feel better, she admits, but they likely won't make a cold go away faster.

Oops. I guess not. So you fail at both science and pseudoscience.

If Shinto's sinuses are congested, she turns to an "old naturopathic therapy" thought to stimulate the immune system. Called hydrotherapy, she might stick her bare feet in hot water for three minutes then in ice-cold water for 30 seconds, and she repeats this hot-cold sequence three times.

This is a fantastically plausible treatment for nasal congestion. Maybe the alternating peripheral vasoconstriction and vasodilation...no, this really is so implausible as to not warrant investigation.

What about another MD's perspective? Surely a second opinion is worthwhile. Dr. Kevin Barrows?

He's a big believer in meditation and has found this mind-body approach helps increase his awareness of subtle body shifts, a tip-off that he may be getting sick. For him, a sore throat is his early warning sign of a cold, his cue to start taking echinacea.

That's great, doc. I'm glad that you can recognize one of the most common symptoms of the common cold as...indicative of the common cold. But he didn't learn that in medical school. No, he figured it out through meditation! Once he determines that his chakras--er, his throat hurts--he knows it's time to start taking echinacea, the herb that a Cochrane review states "shows inconsistent benefit."

Sixteen trials including a total of 22 comparisons of Echinacea preparations and a control group (19 placebo, 2 no treatment, 1 another herbal preparation) met the inclusion criteria. All trials except one were double-blinded. The majority had reasonable to good methodological quality. Three comparisons investigated prevention; 19 comparisons investigated treatment of colds. A variety of different Echinacea preparations were used...

...there is some evidence that preparations based on the aerial parts of E. purpurea might be effective for the early treatment of colds in adults but the results are not fully consistent.

I know that whenever I have a problem, I'm willing to rush out and spend money on things that "might work."

Outside of a mental health context, I know that if I ever had a doctor who suggested "meditation" as a serious method for identifying or treating any illness I'd pull up my pants and walk out the door. Three doctors I'd never want to visit--assuming that their beliefs are being accurately portrayed in this article. Well, what about Dr. David Leopold, our fourth contestant?

At the first sign of a cold, Leopold treats his symptoms extremely aggressively. His goal is to support his immune system so that it helps clear the virus and slows down the spread of symptoms.

He takes zinc gluconate lozenges, drinks plenty of herbal tea and also uses a liquid tincture of echinacea. Despite research that questioned the herbs' benefits, "I'm convinced that most of the well-done studies of echinacea suggest it seems to be effective for reducing the severity and duration of a cold."

Just what I need, a doctor who flunked both statistics and immunology. No thanks.

The thing is, I'm not entirely sure that the blame is entirely on the doctors being quoted here. Now, granted, I don't think that their words (or positions) are being fabricated; I'm sure that, when interviewed about their "holistic medicine" use, all of these doctors (and the naturopath) volunteered honest information.

But here's the problem. This "sound-bite medicine" doesn't actually leave room for--or invite--serious discussion of anything beyond "some doctor said you should try this." And, in the interest of "unbiased journalism," the reporter behind this story didn't bother to fact-check any of the claims made by the doctors. After all, they're just harmless claims; the article isn't about "what is good medicine" but rather opts to provide some opinions by licensed medical practitioners.

Unfortunately, this approach is seriously misguided. Most people think of physicians of all stripes as having a good, solid understanding of medicine, and this implicit trust that doctors know what they're talking about is crucial. If patients think doctors are idiots, why would they ever solicit one for an opinion? The drawback to this is that off-the-cuff "opinions" about vitamin C, echinacea, or other various treatments that don't stand up as effective under serious scrutiny reinforce the misconception that these treatments actually work. Just try telling a patient whose doctor takes vitamin C that vitamin C doesn't treat or prevent colds. "If it doesn't work, why does my doctor do it?" What surprised me about this article is that it didn't even contain the "token skeptic" interview, but then, the article is subtitled "what alternative medicine experts do when they get sick."

Physicians who succumb to non-evidence-based thinking do more than harm themselves. They drag down patients with them, even patients they'll never meet, because their endorsement of unproven remedies assures that these treatments will never die out despite the immense evidence against their efficacy. As long as there are doctors promoting these remedies, no amount of double-blinded, well-controlled, properly randomized research is going to convince the public that they aren't effective--because their doctors, expected to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, are ignoring it.

1 comment:

Abel Pharmboy said...

Nice post, N.B.

Speaking of boosting the immune system, check out the results when this really happens (h/t to Pharmagossip for this hour-long program on TGN 1412).