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The Myth of Evidence-Based Medicine


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Over the next eight weeks I’m going to be studying like a madman for the California State Board Acupuncture licensing exam. I won’t have time to write any special reports or long, “researchy” articles. But I hope to be able to share some of my thoughts here and there. Like this.

I was talking with a colleague the other day (let’s call her M). M related a story one of her patients told her. This patient is a nurse at Kaiser. The nurse was telling M about a meeting she recently attended with the rest of the clinical staff at Kaiser. The purpose of the meeting was to inform all of the doctors and nurses about new clinical guidelines for preventing heart disease.

And what were these clinicians told? To encourage their patients to eat fewer refined carbs, less vegetable oil and less sugar? To engage in a stress management program? To get a moderate amount of physical activity?

Hardly. They were told, in a nutshell, to give everyone statins. The idea communicated to them was that statins are “like vitamins” (a direct quote), and should be distributed in a similar manner.

This got me thinking about the concept of evidence-based medicine. I’m all for it, by the way. Evidence-based medicine, that is. The problem is that it doesn’t really exist in the conventional medical model.

Actually, I take that back. It does exist. But to be more accurate we’d have to call it “20-or-30-year-old-evidence-based medicine”. That’s a more representative term for the kind of medicine being practiced today.

The story above is a perfect case in point. The evidence is clear that statins don’t work. (If you don’t believe that, watch this presentation.) Furthermore, the evidence is also clear that the low-fat, high carbohydrate, vegetable oil-fueled diet promoted for decades by the American Heart Association (AHA) has not only failed to prevent heart disease, it has promoted it.

Anyone who actually reads the scientific literature with an open mind and a critical eye could reach these conclusions. The studies aren’t top secret. They’re not kept in an underground fortress. They’re readily available online or at your local medical library.

Yet in spite of the overwhelming evidence against statins and the low-fat AHA diet, this is still the standard of care for heart disease in the medical profession.

I wish I could say this is an isolated case. But you see the same thing in just about every disease or health condition. The standard of care for hypothyroidism is a complete joke. (More on this after I pass my licensing exam, I promise!) Type II diabetes can, for the vast majority of people, be managed and prevented by a low-carb diet. GERD is treated with PPIs and acid stopping drugs, in spite of the evidence that it is actually caused by low stomach acid in most cases.

Maybe the best example, though, is the 2010 dietary guidelines recently published by the USDA. Tom Naughton over at Fat Head published a post on this recently, so I’ll just crib from that:

I started reading the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines this week. For those of you who hoped the federal government would finally wise up and dump the high-carb/low-fat nonsense … come on, you didn’t really expect that, did you?

Did you honestly believe the government would put together a panel of so-called experts who would announce that the government has been wrong for the past 40 years? That the food pyramid was a disaster? That billions of taxpayer dollars are subsidizing the same foods that are making us fat and diabetic?

Of course not. The new guidelines are, if anything, a perfect example of something I’ve said in previous posts (which I believe I may have borrowed from Milton Friedman): when a government program produces disastrous results, those results are offered as proof that we need to do the same thing again … only bigger!

That’s mostly what the new guidelines are: the same old $#@%, only bigger. Bigger reductions in saturated fat, bigger reductions in salt, bigger reductions in cholesterol, and of course (this is a government committee, after all) lots of “calls to action” … otherwise known as BIG federal programs to convince us poor fools in the public to finally start heeding their advice.

Everywhere you look, you see medicine that isn’t evidence-based – or medicine that’s based on evidence that’s ten, twenty and even fifty years old.

The truth is we don’t have evidence-based medicine. We have profit-based medicine. And as long as the insurance and pharmaceutical companies are running the show, that’s what we’ll continue to have.

Did you know Big Pharma is the second-most profitable industry in the world, behind only the oil industry? Did you know that these companies fund 2/3 of all medical research? Do you really think honest-to-goodness evidence-based medicine is even a possibility in this environment?

Luckily we’ve got the Internet, and some conscientious and intelligent researchers and medical professionals that are willing to look beneath the veil and share what they find with the rest of us.

These days that’s really our only hope as people trying to live healthy lives: to be our own advocates, to seek out information that comes from people without a vested financial interest in selling you something, to maintain a “healthy skepticism” (if I may use the term) about any claims made, whether they come from the conventional or alternative world.

Because let’s face it, evidence-based medicine is a myth.

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  1. In a free market system, big pharma is in the business of selling drugs and the sugar/carb industry is selling unhealthy foods. I think the Docs are stuck in the middle because they don’t treat behaviour (except for some psych components) or they are not responsible or even knowledgeable about nutrition. We are on our own on this one. Anyway some people are capable of living off high carbs, but most get fat.