Saturday, 15 April 2017

Treating the numbers, not the patient

This story is a good example that goes along with a previous post about treating (and correcting) surrogate factors (like X-rays and blood tests) instead of treating patient health (see: The map is not the territory). In this case, hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone levels) in older people comes under the spotlight. If patient don’t have any symptoms, it is still often treated in order to correct the ‘disease’ state. But as researchers found in this randomised trial, replacing their thyroid hormone (compared to placebo) definitely improved the thyroid hormone levels in the blood, but it did nothing to any other outcome measured. It didn’t help the people being treated.

This is a classic example of overdiagnosis – discovering an abnormality in some people (a low thyroid hormone level is common in older people) and labeling it a disease. Doing so then leads to overtreatment aimed at addressing the ‘abnormality’ rather than aimed at improving the health of the patient. This last part is the trick of overtreatment – correcting things in our body is surely good for us, right?  No, not always. It needs to be shown that it is – not assumed. And any benefit shown needs to outweigh any unintended consequences and direct harms from the treatment.


The other problem I have with the problem of overdiagnosis and overtreatment is that the research that shows them wrong comes so many years after the practice has become entrenched (like in this case), making it much harder to undo common practice than if the research was done before the treatment was introduced.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The 'otherness' of research in clinical practice

“Researchers don’t know what it’s like to deal with patients”. Research is meaningless to me – I know what works”. “Most research is rubbish.” I am concerned by comments about research that suggest it is something that can be separated from clinical practice – something that can be ignored when providing good clinical practice. I know several colleagues who just ‘don’t bother’ with research. This ‘otherness’ of research is a fallacy. It would not be so easy to distance oneself from research if we simply called it what it is: science.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Saying "no" to medical cannabis

A state politician just defected to another party because that party agreed to support his stance on medical marijuana (cannabis). The politician stated that it was a moral decision because he wanted to save kids’ lives. Even if he was supporting it for other reasons, medical cannabis falls way short on effectiveness of just about anything, and it certainly doesn’t save kids’ lives. There is a real need for politicians to be more scientific in their information gathering and appraisal. This will make it less likely for them to make untrue statements, and bad decisions based on those statements. Let’s look at the evidence for the true effectiveness of medical cannabis.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Vitamin supplements: too much of a good thing?

Vitamins are vital amines, needed for everyday chemical reactions in our bodies. Deficiencies can be harmful, but that doesn’t mean that taking more than you need is beneficial. In fact, it can be very harmful yet the message that more is better prevails. Does vitamin supplementation help those who are not deficient?

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Don’t treat me, I’m a doctor

“Tennis elbow”, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is a common condition causing pain over the outside of the elbow, where the muscles to the wrist and fingers attach. I’ve got it, and I am doing absolutely nothing about it. Doctors often do not seek treatment, even treatments that they themselves recommend to others. What do these doctors know that makes them avoid treatment?