Misinformation in Medicine

RJ Baron, YD Ejnes. NEJM 2022; 387:1-3. Physicians Spreading Misinformation on Social Media — Do Right and Wrong Answers Still Exist in Medicine?

The authors, representing the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), assert that “there aren’t always right answers, but some answers are clearly wrong.” In their commentary, they note that there is “growing allegiance to crowd-endorsed ‘facts.'” Yet, they expect physicians to adhere to higher standards; however, they note the inherent conflict between speech that can be prohibited by licensing boards and speech protected by the First Amendment.

My take: While the authors state that physicians risk disciplinary action for spreading misinformation, I remain skeptical that licensing boards have the appetite to do this, particularly when it comes to disciplining high-profile offenders like Mehmet Oz or Joseph Ladapo (Florida Surgeon General) (Business Insider: Dr. Oz is running for US Senate in Pennsylvania. Here are 8 times he’s made false or baseless medical claims; Insider: Florida’s surgeon general breaks with CDC advice, says the state will be the first to ‘officially recommend against the COVID-19 vaccine for healthy children‘).

PA Cohen et al. NEJM 2022; 387: 3-5. Institutionalizing Misinformation — The Dietary Supplement Listing Act of 2022

Dietary supplements are another part of medicine with rampant misinformation. In fact, there is nearly ubiquitous misinformation through advertisements across all media segments. Americans spent ~$55 billion on dietary supplements in 2020. This commentary discusses a Senate bill, the Dietary Supplement Listing Act of 2022, which ostensibly would improve this situation.

However, this is NOT the case. This bill requires manufacturers to provide the FDA with a product’s name, ingredients and health claims. It mandates the FDA create a searchable database. What the legislation doesn’t do:

  • Provide the the FDA with a mechanism to confirm a product’s ingredients
  • Enable regulation of misleading health claims
  • Stop the promotion and sale of supplements with dangerous ingredients
  • Allow the FDA to remove products from its registry determined to have unlawful ingredients and remove products deemed hazardous

My take: This legislation needs to be strengthened to limit deception. In its current form, this registry would appear to confer FDA oversight to dietary supplements (which is minimal) and paradoxically legitimize dietary supplements .

Related blog posts:

Hilton Head at Sunrise

Genus Medical Technologies v FDA -Lack of Judicial Deference to FDA Expertise

A recent commentary (PJ Zettler et al. NEJM 2021; 385: 2409-2411. A Divisive Ruling on Devices — Genus Medical Technologies v. FDA) highlights another challenge facing the FDA’s role in regulating devices, especially as the definition of devices and medications becomes more murky.

Key points/excerpts:

  • In April 2021, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided, in Genus Medical Technologies v. FDA, that products meeting the FDCA’s definition of a device “must be regulated as devices”…The Genus case concerned a challenge to the discretion of the FDA to classify Genus Medical Technologies’ Vanilla SilQ line of diagnostic barium sulfate contrast agents as drugs rather than as devices…FDCA’s drug and device definitions overlap.
  • Ultimately, the D.C. Circuit Court held that products meeting both definitions must be regulated as devices because the FDCA’s “text unambiguously forecloses the FDA’s interpretation.” The court did not give the FDA so-called Chevron deference, a doctrine under which courts defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of a statute that it implements, if the statute is ambiguous.
  • Because technological innovation often outpaces legal change, we believe it could serve both public health and industry for the FDA to retain some discretion regarding the most appropriate regulatory pathways for anticipated and as-yet-unforeseen device classes… overly restricting the FDA’s flexibility to use its expertise could endanger important public health priorities, especially when there are compelling reasons why Congress permitted flexibility.
  • The Genus decision comes at the end of a decade of growing challenges to the FDA’s authority to regulate. From court decisions in the early 2010s that were sympathetic to arguments that FDA policies regarding off-label drug promotion violate the Constitution’s First Amendment, [and] to the political (and legislative) success of right-to-try laws

My take: This commentary shows the difficulties the FDA faces as the judiciary curtails its discretion. While the legislative branch could codify FDA authority, this is unlikely. As such, this will limit FDA oversight in some new medical products. When problems arise, it is likely that the FDA (not the courts) will be blamed despite the fact that their ability to regulate has been undermined.

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Huntingdon Lake. Sandy Springs, GA

Eric Topol to Stephen Hahn/FDA: “Tell the Truth or Resign”

An open letter from Eric Topol to Dr.Stephen Hahn details a number of glaring mistakes at the FDA which threaten its credibility and its mission.

Here’s the link: Dear Commissioner Hahn: Tell the Truth or Resign

The letter points to three high profile, politically-fraught decisions at the FDA:

  1. Authorization of hydroxychloroquine
    • “Immediately after President Trump widely and aggressively promoted hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle drug,” on March 30, 2020, you granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for this drug without any sufficient or meaningful supportive evidence”
  2. Authorization of convalescent plasma
    • “This is a major advance…[A]nd a 35% improvement in survival is a pretty substantial clinical benefit. What that means is — and if the data continue to pan out — [of] 100 people who are sick with COVID-19, 35 would have been saved because of the admission of plasma.” Every part of that statement is incorrect and a blatant misrepresentation of the data.
  3. Authorizaton of remdesevir
    • The third breach of evidence-based data was your EUA issued August 28, 2020 broadening the remdesivir approval to include any patient hospitalized with moderate COVID-19. There are insufficient data to support this approval, as it is based on small, open-label studies with subjective endpoints.

Dr. Topol worries that Dr. Hahn will further erode confidence in the FDA by approval of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine prematurely.  “Any shortcuts will not only jeopardize the vaccine programs but betray the public trust, which is already fragile about vaccines, and has been made more so by your lack of autonomy from the Trump administration and its overt politicization of the FDA.”

Food-borne Outbreaks and Lack of FDA Transparency

A recent opinion piece from FoodSafetyNews highlights the lack of transparency from the FDA regarding food-borne outbreaks (several more listed below).

Bill Marler: Publisher’s Platform: A bit more about the FDA and lack of Transparency

Here’s an excerpt:

The Halloween disclosure of a multistate E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce raises another concern about the FDA and transparency — the failure to disclose where consumers purchased the tainted product..

Under the Freedom of Information Act and Title 21 of the Code of Regulations, government agencies — and specifically, the FDA — are told to exempt trade secrets and commercial information from any of their releases…

Formulations, ingredients and how products are made are trade secrets.  Who supplied the tainted raw material, who made the tainted product and where the tainted product was sold are not a trade secrets – especially during an outbreak.  Simplicity, transparency and consistency allows for a visible supply chain and one that consumers can have confidence in. 

Recent outbreaks (thanks to colleague for these references):

Multistate Salmonella Outbreak Linked To Ground Beef Causes One Death, Eight Hospitalizations

  • Reuters (11/1, Maddipatla) reported, “A multistate outbreak of salmonella linked to ground beef has caused one death in California and eight hospitalizations, U.S. health officials said on Friday. A total of 10 people in six U.S. states were infected with a strain of the bacteria called Salmonella Dublin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
  • TIME (11/2, Carlisle) reported, “Officials have not yet identified a single common source of the ground beef that is believed to be spreading the Salmonella Dublin based on epidemiological and laboratory evidence. According to the CDC, the sick individuals reported eating different brands of ground beef at different locations.”
  • CNN (11/1, Christensen) also reported the story.

Previously Undisclosed E. Coli Outbreak Linked To Romaine Lettuce Sickened Nearly Two Dozen People, FDA Says

  • The Washington Post (11/1, Brice-Saddler) reported, “A previously undisclosed E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce sickened nearly two dozen people between July and early September, the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday – a delayed announcement one food safety lawyer called a ‘lie to the public in all respects.’” The piece added, “Illnesses associated with the outbreak infected 23 people across 12 states from July 12 to Sept. 8, according to the FDA. No patients died of their illnesses, and officials say there is no ongoing public health risk.”

Dozens more fresh vegetable products because of Listeria monocytogenes risk (11/4) (FoodSafetyNews.com)

  • A (Canadian) nationwide recall of freshcut vegetables continues to expand with dozens of products and multiple brands now on the list. Products potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes are cole slaw, riced cauliflower, green beans, noodles, kale salads and more.  Some of the products do not expire for 10 days or more, so consumers and businesses are urged to check their supplies for the recalled products listed here by the Canadian government

My take: Food-borne illnesses cause 48 million cases in U.S. each year (CDC estimates) and 3000 deaths (MMWR 64:2, 2015). More transparency is needed.

Related blog post: Food Safety Lecture-It’s Still A Jungle Out There


Big Pharma Neglecting ‘Required’ Pediatric Studies

A recent retrospective study (TJ Hwang et al. JAMA Pediatr 2019; 173: 68-74) examined the completion rate of FDA-required pediatric studies. Thanks to Ben Gold for this reference.

Background: In 2003, the Pediatric Research Equity Act (PREA) was signed into law and authorized the FDA to require clinical stuides to assess the safety and efficacy of new drugs and drugs with new indications in pediatric subpopulations.  However, the FDA cannot withdraw approval for a drug if a manufacturer fails to comply with PREA.  In addition, the authors note that “to our knowledge, to date, no financial penalties or enforcement proceedings have been brought against manufacturers fo noncompliance…and only 31 noncompliance letters have been issued.”

Key findings:

  • Between 2007-2014, there were 438 new drugs and/or new indications.  114 were subject to PREA. 84 were new drugs and 30 were new indications.
  • 222 studies required pediatric postmarketing clinical studies (in these 114 drugs). Only 75 (33.8%) were completed; rates were lower for efficacy studies (38 of 132 –28.8%) compared to pharmacokinetic studies (19 of 34 –55.9%).
  • As a result of the PREA-mandated studies, there was an increase in some pediatric information of drug labels in 41.2% after a median follow-up of 6.8 years, compared with 15.8% at time of approval of these 114 drugs.

The authors note that PREA is responsible for “nearly 80% of pediatric drug studies completed for FDA.” Congress also passed the Best Pharmaceuticals for Children Act which provides a financial incentive to companies if they perform certain pediatric studies.

My take: Pharmaceutical companies, for a multitude of reasons, are not completing requied pediatric studies.

Can the FDA stop snake oil salesmen?

A recent commentary (C Robertson, AS Kesselheim. NEJM 2016; 375: 2313-5) examines how the issue of “free speech” may undermine the FDA’s ability to regulate ineffective or dangerous medications. This has been discussed in a previous blog:

Can the FDA prohibit free speech?

In a previous case, Caronia had promoted sodium oxybate for a wide range of nonapproved uses; some of these uses “were likely to cause patients substantial harm.”

Yet, the 2nd Circuit court reversed a lower court in ruling that Caronia’s sale pitches were protected free speech.  This decision “subverted decades of presumptions about how the government could oversee the behavior of the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.”

The authors hope that an upcoming case to the 1st circuit will uphold the FDAs ability to assure that patients are protected and that the use of drugs is driven by science and not marketing.  If manufacturers are allowed to promote a wide range of uses for drugs with narrow indications, there will not be an incentive to determine if these medications are safe and effective.

My take: If the principles of free speech are extended to promoting bogus claims about pharmaceuticals and medical devices, this would be a huge blow to medical science.

Acadia Natl Park

Acadia Natl Park

The Problem with Black Box Warnings

A short article (T Elraiyah, et al. Ann Intern Med. Published online 29 September 2015 doi:10.7326/M15-1097) explains the problem with current black box warnings and what can be done to improve them. “A black box warning (BBW) is the highest level of warning issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)…These warnings are required when there is reasonable evidence of association between the drug and a significant safety concern.” Key points:

  • BBWs “have been the subject of controversy, due in part to their opaque connection to the underlying body of evidence.”
  • The authors reviewed 70 BBWs from the top 200 drugs.  “We found only 19 (27%) provided an estimate of the likelihood of harm, and only 8 (11%) reported a CI for that estimate.”
  • “Fewer than half (43%) presented the source of evidence. None described the quality (certainty of the evidence).”
  • “None provided guidance on how to communicate or act on the evidence.”

The authors state that “BBWs infrequently contain 3 elements required for evidence-based practice (estimate of effect, source and trustworthiness of evidence, and guidance on implementation).” There are some medicines that already have a well-presented BBW, including Advair-diskus.

My take: Black box warnings can generate a lot of anxiety and may adversely affect the calculation of benefit versus harm.  Improving them could be helpful for patients and doctors alike.

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Atlanta Botanical Gardens

Atlanta Botanical Gardens


Critique of the 21st Century Cures Act

The most compelling article (Avorn J, Kesselheim AS. NEJM 2015; 372: 2473-5) in a recent edition of the NEJM delved into the 21st Century Cures Act which was recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives; it was approved 51 to 0 in committee but continues to be debated.

One of the underlying premises of the bill is accelerate approval for new products. Key features:

  1. Increase in National Institutes of Health (NIH) of about 3% per year for 3 years. And, additional $2 billion per year for 5 years to create an “NIH Innovation Fund”
  2. Instructs FDA to consider nontraditional study designs for clinical trials.  This is aimed at shorter, smaller and less expensive studies.  This could allow FDA to rely on “observational studies” and “clinical experience.”
  3. The bill encourages the FDA to rely more on surrogate end points
  4. The bill would allow informed consent to be bypassed if the “proposed testing poses no more than minimal risk.”

Critiques for each point, point by point:

1. The funding increases largely counterbalance stagnating funds at the NIH secondary to sequestration and budget cuts.

2.  The premise that the FDA is inefficient is not accurate.

  • “A third of new drugs are currently approved on the basis of a single pivotal trial” with a median of 760 patients.
  • Most drugs are approved based on studies with a duration of 6 months or less, even medications taken for a lifetime.
  • Evaluation of nearly all new drug applications is completed within 6 to 10 months.

3.  Surrogate markers often overestimate the potential benefit of medications.  The FDA “already uses surrogate end points in about half of new drug approvals.” Specific examples:

  • Bevacizumab has been shown to delay tumor progression in breast cancer “but was shown not to benefit patients.
  • Rosiglitazone “lowered glycated hemoglobin levels in patients with diabetes even as it increased their risk of myocardial infarction.”
  • One new tuberculosis drug improved bacterial counts in the sputum but “the treatment group had a death rate four times that in the comparison group.”

4.  Informed consent has been “sacrosanct, with exceptions made only when consent is impossible or contrary to a patient’s best interests.”  With this new proposal, “it is not clear who gets to determine whether a given trial of a new drug poses “minimal risk.”

Bottomline (from authors): The 21st Century Cures Act’s call for increased NIH funding may prove to be its most useful component.  But political forces…could lead to the approval of drugs and devices that are less safe or effective than existing criteria would permit.”

Audio interview with Jerry Avorn: nej.md/1TPy6Ta

Some pictures from yesterday’s Peachtree Road Race:

Coveted T-shirt -2015 Edition

Coveted T-shirt -2015 Edition

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 6.34.03 PM

Rainy Day for a 10K

Largest 10K in U.S

Largest 10K in the World

NASPGHAN Postgraduate Course 2014 -Intestinal Inflammation

This blog entry has abbreviated/summarized the presentations. Though not intentional, some important material is likely to have been omitted; in addition, transcription errors are possible as well.

Link: PG Course Syllabus – FINAL (entire syllabus)

The speakers reviewed a lot of IBD material (both at the postgraduate course and at the meeting); much of it has been has been covered in previous blog posts:

Early Onset Inflammatory Bowel Disease –Scott Snapper (Boston Children’s Hospital) pg 170 in Syllabus

  • If one has a 1st degree relative with Crohn’s disease: 26-fold increased risk for IBD compared with 8-fold increased risk if 1st degree relative has ulcerative colitis
  • 30% of children have one or more family members with IBD
  • Concordance rate much greater in monozygotic vs dizygotic twins: 10-15% in UC and 25-30% in Crohn’s with monozygotic

Infantile IBD (age <2 years)

  • Often isolated colonic disease
  • Severe course – refractory to multiple immunosuppressant medications, often requiring surgery, occasionally fatal
  • > 40 % with one or more family members with IBD
  • 25% with infantile IBD have this as their first manifestation of underlying immunodeficiency (pg 174): IPEX, CGD, NEMO, Wiscott-Aldrich, XIAP, common variable immunodeficiency
  • NEOPICS: interNational Early Onset Pediatric IBD Cohort Study. Expanded to 80 Centers (250 scientists) on 5 continents with access to over 1000 VEO-IBD patients
  • IL10 Receptor defect results in infantile onset IBD. Hematopoietic stem cell therapy can be curative. Increased risk of B-cell lymphomas.
  • NCF2 variant (NADPH Oxidase Gene) found in 4% of   (n=11/268)
  • TTC7A mutations (identified by whole exome sequencing) cause apoptotic enterocolitis, intestinal atresias, and SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency) –may not benefit by stem cell transplantation
  • Immune workup for VEO-IBD: immunoglobulins, DHR for CGD, lymphocyte subsets. If negative, further genetic testing (candidate gene testing &/or exome sequencing)

Surgery in Crohn’s Disease –Jason Frischer (Cincinnati Children’s)

  • 28% of CD patients need surgery within 10 years of CD diagnosis; 5.7% within one year.
  • Reviewed principles: conserve bowel, reserved for complications/does not cure Crohn’s disease, strictures can be treated without resection.

Perioperative care

  • Preop-“no answer with regard to biologics,” steroids are detrimental (goal <20 mg of prednisone).  Biologics may increase risk of infections (could be related to specific level) but this is unclear.
  • Postop: thromboprophylaxis

Surgical problems (JPGN 2013; 57: 394 NASPGHAN Guidelines): Abscess, Fistula, Stricture

  • Abscess: percutaneously drain abscess if >2 cm and can remove drain when having less than 10 mL/day. Surgery reserved if refractory to conservative treatment –?timing
  • Strictures: steroids to minimize acute inflammation.  Stricturolplasty rare in pediatrics –used only in those without fistulas. Most common stricturolplasty: Heineke-Mikulicz.
  • In Crohn’s patients at Cincinnati children’s who have undergone ileostomy, long-term only 46% able to have intestinal continuity

Crohn’s and UC What to do when antiTNF isn’t working? –Athos Bousvaros (Boston Children’s) pg 190 in Syllabus

Off-label IBD drugs in children for medically-refractory disease.

Potential Rescue treatments

  •  Calcineurin inhibitors for UC (eg. tacrolimus, cyclosporine)
  •  Thalidomide for Crohn disease
  •  Natalizumab for Crohn disease –>not being used anymore. PML risk
  •  Vedolizumab for Crohn disease and UC
  •  Ustekinumab for Crohn disease
  •  Tofacitinib for UC

Before off-label drugs:

  • Optimize TNF: Make sure the diagnosis is right (eg. exclude CGD), Minimize risk of loss of response (combination therapy, optimize dose, scheduled infusions)
  • Consider surgery -strictures, ulcerative colitis, limited disease

Data for tacrolimus from Boston. n=46. (Watson et al, IBD Journal 2011).  Used most frequently with severe UC.

Data for thalidomide –31 of 49 achieved remission. Lazzerini et al, JAMA. 2013;310(20):2164‐2173.  Side effects -birth defects, neuropathy.  STEPS program.

Data for vedolizumab. Feagan et al NEJM 2013; 369:699.  Remission (in the responders) for ulcerative colitis at 52 weeks:

  • 45% of patients getting vedolizumab monthly
  • 42% of patients getting it every other month
  • 16% of patients randomized to placebo

For Crohns’ disease , Vedolizumab also works in Crohn’s disease, but it takes time (Sands et al: Gastroenterology 2014 147:618‐627)

Off-label does not equate to experimental! pg 199:

FDA Statement: The FD&C Act does not, however, limit the manner in which a physician may use an approved drug. Once a product has been approved for marketing, a physician may prescribe it for uses or in treatment regimens or patient populations that are not included in approved labeling. Such “unapproved” or, more precisely, “unlabeled” uses may be appropriate and rational in certain circumstances, and may, in fact, reflect approaches to drug therapy that have been extensively reported in medical literature.


“Luminitis:” When Inflammation is Not IBD (Microscopic Colitides) –Robbyn Sockolow (Weill Cornell Medical School) pg 180 in Syllabus

Microscopic Colitis -pediatric prevalence unknown (JPGN 2013;57:557-561). Nonbloody diarrhea with normal-appearance grossly.

  • Lymphocytic Colitis (>20 intraepithelial lymphocytes/100 colonocytes) -Normal crypt architecture
  • Collagenous Colitis -Thick layer (up to 30 micrometers) of collagen in the tissue and increased lymphocytes in colon

Eosinophilic colitis

  • At-risk groups?  Infants & post-transplant patients (tacrolimus trigger?) (Saeed et al Pediatr Transplantation 2006: 10: 730–735)
  • Associated with food allergy, IBD, autoimmune diseases
  • Elevated serum IgE.



Buyer Beware: Supplement at Your Own Risk

Although I’m a pretty good swimmer, I am always a little uneasy when I see signs that say “Swim at Your Own Risk.” Perhaps, signs like that should accompany ‘dietary supplements’ since they are unregulated and often pose a significant unknown danger.

A fascinating perspective article discusses the myriad of problems with over-the-counter supplements (NEJM 2014; 370: 1277-80).  The article begins by detailing the cases of severe hepatitis and death due to OxyElite Pro, a supplement marketed for weight loss and muscle building.  This agent was linked to 97 patients, 47 required hospitalizations, 3 resulted in liver transplantation (that’s one way to lose weight!), and one death.  An astute liver-transplant surgeon was the first to suspect this supplement.

Since then “nothing has been done to prevent another supplement from causing organ failure or death.”

Key points:

  • Supplement industry: $32 billion spent in U.S. per year on 85,000 different combinations of vitamins, minerals, botanicals, amino acids, probiotics, and other ingredients
  • Supplements do not require premarketing approval.  “Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, anything labeled as a dietary supplement is assumed to be safe until proven otherwise.”
  • More than 500 supplements have already been found to be adulterated with pharmaceuticals like anabolic steroids, unapproved antidepressants, banned weight-loss medications, untested sildenafil analogues, and even methamphetamine analogues.
  • The FDAs ability to monitor these supplements is poor.  The MedWatch (https://www.safetyreporting.hhs.gov) is plagued with underreporting and lack of timeliness.  Local health departments have frequently stumbled upon the problem first.

Some common problems with current supplements include the following:

  1. Arrhythmias with agents like Ephedra, horny goat weed, and oleander
  2. Bleeding with Ginkgo
  3. Cancer with anabolic steroids (hepatoma), Beta-carotene (lung cancer), and Vitamin E (prostate cancer)
  4. Hepatotoxicity with numerous supplements including chaparral, comfrey, fo-ti, gerrymander, and kava
  5. Other problems: stroke, kidney stones, panic attacks, rashes, and mood alterations

The perspective notes that a bill in a Senate committee if passed would require that manufacturers register their products and provide some safety information.  This is unlikely to make any significant change.  The author recommends that “every supplement ingredient should undergo rigorous safety testing before marketing.”

Bottomline: when a patient asks you if “this supplement” is OK, the honest answer is nobody knows.

Related blog post: