Sunday 27 January 2013

Don’t just do something, stand there

This reversal of a commonly used phrase is a plea. A plea against the bias that leans doctors towards diagnosing and treating, even when the scientific evidence may not support it. Sure, it is expected that a doctor will diagnose and treat you, but sometimes there is no diagnosis or effective treatment, and pursuing either may be harmful. When in doubt, your doctor will continue to run tests until something comes up, and will continue to treat you for as long as you return with symptoms. Sometimes, not pursuing a diagnosis and not treating a patient are reasonable options. Sometimes they are the best option.

Friday 18 January 2013

Book review: Limits to Medicine

Title: Limits to Medicine. Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (1975)
Author: Ivan Illich
Publisher: Marion Boyars

Ivan Illich was a philosopher and historian who published several books in the 1970s targeting areas like medicine, transport, education and energy use. His thesis was that modern, western, industrialisation and in particular the institutionalization of specialised knowledge by the professions has far-reaching negative consequences. His 1975 book Limits to Medicine. Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health made his case against modern, institutionalised medicine. He felt that more expensive and specialised medicine was more likely to be harmful and less effective, and that important aspects of the life experience such as birth, mating, suffering, aging and dying were being medicalized. His points were interesting and controversial in their time, and the following 40-odd years of growth in specialised industrial medicine has made many of them prescient.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Lessons from history #5: Bone marrow transplant for breast cancer

In the 1990s, giving patients with breast cancer massive doses of chemotherapy or radiotherapy followed by a bone marrow “rescue” was thought to improve survival and even cure the disease. It was complex, expensive and risky, which only raised the perceived effectiveness. The treatment spread, and insurance companies had to fall in line to cover the treatment due to legal, government and public pressure. The randomised trials that were eventually done showed that it was no more effective than standard treatment. Here is the story and the lessons that can be learned.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Evidence based medicine vs the Golden Rule

I am a big fan of evidence based medicine (EBM). Not the cookbook type (“do it this way or else”), but the idea that medicine is a science and therefore should be approached scientifically. We should use the principles of logic and rational thinking to reduce the errors that result from our often irrational, subjective “human” way of making decisions. Sometimes, however, we try to use EBM to justify something that doesn’t need scientific support – something that should be the default, and only changed if there is evidence against it. Something like the Golden Rule.

Tuesday 1 January 2013

What's the deal with those bad hip replacements?

Most people are aware that a year or two ago there were some new hip replacements that were recalled. The story behind it has all the ingredients to suit this blog: overestimation of benefit, underestimation of harm, regulation failure, and conflict of interest up the wazoo. The ‘deal’ as it were, was a bad one for patients, a bad one for the company (in the end), but a great one for the surgeons, as it became the gift that keeps giving.