Though the results of drug studies often make newspaper headlines, you have to wonder whether they prove anything at all. Indeed, given the breadth of the potential problems raised at the meeting, can any medical-research studies be trusted?
That question has been central to Ioannidis’s career. He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed…
In poring over medical journals, he was struck by how many findings of all types were refuted by later findings. Of course, medical-science “never minds” are hardly secret. And they sometimes make headlines, as when in recent years large studies or growing consensuses of researchers concluded that mammograms, colonoscopies, and PSA tests are far less useful cancer-detection tools than we had been told; or when widely prescribed antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil were revealed to be no more effective than a placebo for most cases of depression; or when we learned that staying out of the sun entirely can actually increase cancer risks; or when we were told that the advice to drink lots of water during intense exercise was potentially fatal; or when, last April, we were informed that taking fish oil, exercising, and doing puzzles doesn’t really help fend off Alzheimer’s disease, as long claimed.
Peer-reviewed studies have come to opposite conclusions on whether using cell phones can cause brain cancer, whether sleeping more than eight hours a night is healthful or dangerous, whether taking aspirin every day is more likely to save your life or cut it short, and whether routine angioplasty works better than pills to unclog heart arteries…
Baffled, he started looking for the specific ways in which studies were going wrong. And before long he discovered that the range of errors being committed was astonishing: from what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals…
Scary stuff, right?
When was the last time your doctor recommended a treatment based on faulty research? (How often do doctors treat women with drugs that were only tested on men?) Well, it happens every day. But looking even further than that, government agencies use this faulty research to make restrictions, regulations and laws, especially in the drug war.
In the opioid war, groups like PFROP provide this faulty research as proof of their positions, and often it’s research performed by the very members of these groups, or for anti-drug agencies that agree with their agenda. And don’t count on the media to uncover conflicts of interest or faulty research — the media is part of the problem.
How long have we been using abstinence-based programs to treat addiction when they’ve only been proven to work as well as a placebo? Not that the placebo effect should be discounted, but only a small percentage of people respond to the placebo effect. The rest of us, somewhere between 75% and 90%, are then blamed when these treatments don’t work.
Let’s look at PTSD. Is there credible evidence that currently-used treatments are effective? Treatment that makes PTSD sufferers re-live their experiences can’t possibly work for every single person, while I assume it can actually do a lot of harm. Yet doctors force these treatments on patients as if it’s the best choice, many times regardless of the side effects.
Doctors should finally admit that, even with all their education and experience, they don’t have the ability to tell patients which is the best treatment choice. Patients have to decide. But our health care system doesn’t work that way. The DEA, CDC, FDA, insurance companies, State Boards, doctors — they make the decisions and patients just have to accept it. Decisions often based on faulty research.
Part of the reason that women are often discriminated against within the medical community is because we don’t stand up for ourselves. Mostly male doctors play the unwelcome role of father-like figures, telling us to discount our symptoms because we’re just weak women.
Both women and men need to learn that doctors are not infallible; they’re not gods. Just ask the 400,000 patients who die every year from medical mistakes. Yes, doctors have a lot of power over us, and it can be hard and painful to reclaim that power as patients. You may not be able to do it today, but doesn’t it give you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside to look at a future where you make your own medical decisions? Do we really need doctors to help us make these decisions, especially when doctors are relying on junk science?
How about a study that compares the success of a doctor’s choice for treatment versus the patient’s choice for treatment? Which group will have the best outcomes?