cardiac disorders

"I do my own research"

Something that I see a lot in on-line debates about alternative medicine is phrases like “I did my own research” or “people should be allowed to do their own research and make their own decisions”

However, I don’t think that the vast majority of people are able to do their own research. Now, that’s probably a pretty unpopular opinion. It’s patronising, paternalistic, and it flies in the face of patient choice. Who am I to question the intelligence and abilities of other people? Why do I think I'm so clever compared to anyone else out there? Allow me to explain myself.

I've been a pharmacist for a very long time now. From uni, through pre-reg, to my own revision at work, I've been taught critical appraisal skills. Yet to this day, it’s something that I actually find really hard work. It’s a skill that requires continual honing, and every time I use it I feel like I am fighting with my brain. 

Even in the last two weeks, I've been revisiting my critical appraisal skills to make sure they are up to date. I've done some in-house work, three on-line courses, and a one to one training session. Yet I still find myself sat here at my desk for several hours, if not days, looking over the same study with a furrowed brow, desperately trying to make the numbers and statistics tell me their story.  If I find it so hard, then how on earth is someone without any medical background or critical appraisal training supposed to do any of it? 

There’s hazard ratios, odds ratios, confidence intervals, numbers needed to treat, event rates, absolute risks and other confuddling terms to deal with. I naturally struggle with numbers at the best of times; like most people, I much prefer narratives. That means that I have to constantly argue with myself to keep looking at the results page, rather than just flicking to the discussion. Because if I did that, I'd be relying on what the authors, with all of their possible biases and agendas, say their numbers say. Then, when I eventually manage to squeeze the swimming mass of figures into some sort of order in my head, I find out that these numbers aren't the full story, and I need to dig even deeper into other analyses of the same figures to find out what’s really going on.* 

A quick and very simplistic visualisation of all the layers of interpretation that might lead to information found on your common or garden health information website. That's a whole lot of bias.

A quick and very simplistic visualisation of all the layers of interpretation that might lead to information found on your common or garden health information website. That's a whole lot of bias.

It’s not a pleasant task by any stretch of the imagination. It really does feel like a mental marathon. I often question whether I am even up to the task- I can end up feeling stupid, and confused. But in order to really figure out whether or not a drug works I need to strip away all the levels of other peoples’ interpretation and start from scratch, with the cold, hard, impersonal numbers. That way I can build my own narrative, uninfluenced by what the study’s authors or sponsors want me to think, by what newspapers want me to believe, by what campaigners want me to know. The only way to know the truth is to start right at the bottom, in a dark dank pit of statistics, then to slowly start building yourself a ladder until you emerge, blinking, into the pleasant knowledge that you've worked out what on earth is going on.

This sort of raw data is not only extremely hard to deal with once it’s in front of you, but its also pretty difficult to come by. Finding it in the first place includes searching multiple medical databases- and these things aren't just a quick free text search like you would do on Google. Constructing a search can in itself take an hour or so, and then you have to trawl through the results to decide which are relevant to what you are specifically looking for. For me, most of the time, a question is structured like this:

What is the evidence that [drug/ group of drugs] works for [disease] in [patient group

 So, in my poorly drawn Venn diagram below, I need to find those holy grail papers that reside in the pink area:

I am truly terrible at MS paint, but you get the idea.

I am truly terrible at MS paint, but you get the idea.

What a typical EMBASE search looks like. This is for a new drug with few synonyms so its a fairly straightforward one. Others can have forty odd lines of searches.

What a typical EMBASE search looks like. This is for a new drug with few synonyms so its a fairly straightforward one. Others can have forty odd lines of searches.

Some of these papers might be pay-walled, so it’ll take me a week or so to get my hands on them. Some of them might initially look promising, but once you start to dig down into the figures you see that there might actually be problems with how they were undertaken or reported, or they might turn out to not quite fit in some way- perhaps the dose they used in the trial is different to the licensed dose in the UK, or the people enrolled into the trial don’t quite fit the population you want to know about, or perhaps the trial just didn't recruit enough people so any results from it are invalidated.

I've been doing this job for years, and I really do still struggle with all of this stuff. That’s not because I'm poor at my job, or because I'm stupid, or because I haven’t put the effort in to understand it. It’s because, when it comes down to it, this stuff is really bloody hard. It’s time-consuming, boring, and unintuitive.

People might well feel like they've done their own research. They might spend several hours digging about on the internet and feel empowered by any decisions that they make. But what they don’t realise is that what they've been researching isn't just the information- it’s the information with many, many layers of interpretation (and therefore bias) added. For a choice to be truly informed, you need to go right back to the start, to those terrifying tables of numbers and statistics. That’s simply not realistic for the majority of people.

Far better, then, to learn how to decide on whose interpretation you’re going to rely on. Will it be those that take the media reports at face value, or who have an agenda or a product to sell you? Or will you go with those that have years of training in how to pull apart complicated data and disseminate it in understandable ways?

Hxxx

*I thought I’d give you a quick real life example here, but I thought it best to asterisk it because I've probably bored you enough already. I'm currently looking at a drug called edoxaban and its use in reducing the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation. It’s the newest in a series of novel oral anticoagulant drug- they’re supposedly like warfarin, but less faffy. So I find and look at the main trial, and spend days unpicking the stats. It looks like both strengths used in the trial are no worse than warfarin, and the higher dose might even be a little better. Great, right?

Well, that’s not quite the end of the story. Because it turns out- and this isn't reported in the trial at all, but instead is contained in the FDA’s briefing document- that in people with fully working kidneys, edoxaban is actually worse than plain old warfarin. In people whose kidney’s aren't quite at full capacity though, it might work better than warfarin. So the overall trial results are kind of skewed, and if we didn't dig deeper, we might have been giving a whole group of people a more expensive drug with worse outcomes than warfarin. Even the FDA findings are borderline- some of what they describe doesn't reach statistical significance.

It's time to reclaim holism

Holistic. It's one of those words that's sure to set any skeptic’s teeth on edge. It's basically a codename for woo, bandied about by supporters and pushers of all sorts of magic, unicorn tears, and snake oil.

But should it be? Is it time for the medical profession to reclaim the label holistic as its own, and start shouting from the rooftops about how we are holistic practitioners? I think it is, and here’s why.

holistic

həʊˈlɪstɪk,hɒ-/

adjective

Philosophy

adjective: holistic

characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

Medicine

characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.

There is a general perception, gleefully pushed by proponents of alternative healthcare,  that somehow conventional healthcare and holism are at odds with each other. The image of an uncaring, white-coated medical professionals hell-bent on simply treating that one particular symptom, with no regard for the fact that a patient is attached to that symptom seems pervasive.

We don’t help ourselves, I suppose. With a limited time on GP appointments, for example, its easy to feel like you’re being rushed through the system. Some surgeries ask that you book one appointment per ailment. Our health care professionals tend to specialise in one particular type of illness, and you can start to get the impression that they only care about that particular bit of your life, despite the fact that it’s very often all interconnected. You can feel passed from pillar to post, one day an appointment with a diabetes nurse, the next day an appointment with someone else for your arthritis, and two days later an appointment with a mental health specialist. So I do understand that it can seem like, as healthcare professional, we only care about your symptoms. 

But, even at the most basic level, it is impossible and really quite dangerous  to practice healthcare without looking at the patient as a whole. We’re all trained to do it, and its become so second nature to us that we have all sort of forgotten to be proud of it. As a result, we've lost control of the word holistic and we’re allowing unscrupulous charlatans to creep in to the public’s consciousness on the back of it. Of course, there are improvements to be made, but I think on the whole we do bloody well in the NHS, given the knowledge, funding and time constraints we’re lumbered with.

Now, in my day job as a medicines information pharmacist, I actually have no direct contact with patients. But I still, fundamentally, operate as a holistic practitioner. Here’s a basic example of what I mean:

GP: “Ah, hi there, I’m just wondering if there are any interactions between Champix and CellCept?”

In this sort of seemingly simple interaction enquiry, it is imperative that I look at the patient as a whole, rather than simply as two drugs out there on their own. 

  • Champix®▼(varenicline) is a drug used to help patients stop smoking
  • CellCept® (mycophenolate mofetil) is an immunosuppressive drug used to stop organ rejection in transplant patients. 

If I were to look at interactions of these two drugs,  I wouldn't find any,So fine, we’re good to go, right? I mean, I’ve answered the question, done my job, and all is well, yes? 

No, not at all. If I’m going to safely answer this question, I need to look at the patient as a whole. I need to acknowledge that they’re not simply a smoking machine that needs to stop but they’re a living, breathing complicated human.  I need to look at the patient holistically, not just as some isolated drugs.

So our patient is in his mid-forties, using the mycophenolate mofetil because he has previously had a heart transplant. He has a history of depression (understandable really, given how ill he has been in the past), and takes a couple of other medicines too (no major interactions on checking). He wants to stop smoking, which is great, a really positive step for him, but he’s failed a few attempts already whilst using nicotine replacement therapies. He's found these failed attempts frustrating in the past,which has then triggered bouts of depression. His liver and kidneys are working just fine.

So, looking at the patient as a whole, I need to think about how using varenicline will impact him as a person. Some of my thoughts go thus:

  • Stopping smoking itself might affect some drugs, as there are chemicals in cigarette smoke which can affect the enzymes that metabolise some drugs. Is this the case with any of these drugs?

  • Quitting smoking itself can be a trigger for depression or suicidal ideation. 

  • There is also an association between varenicline and changes in behaviour and thinking, including depression and suicidal ideation. Given this patient’s history, this will need to be discussed with him and he’ll need to be monitored carefully.

  • Certain cardiovascular events were reported more frequently with varenicline than placebo in trials: we need to bear that in mind and monitor him for any adverse reactions, especially given his heart transplant

  • Not succeeding in giving up smoking has made him depressed in the past. Continuing to smoke increases his cardiovascular risks. A good old risk vs benefit decision needs to be made.

So I discuss all this with the Dr, and her response is:

“Ah that's great. Yep, I knew about the depression stuff but to be honest I hadn't really thought about the cardiovascular risks. I'll discuss it all with him, and I think we'll go ahead and prescribe it but I'll make sure to keep him closely monitored”

By looking at the patient holistically, his Dr and I have made sure that he will know to look out for any cardiac effects and to report it as soon as possible if he does experience any side effects. We can make sure that he's also prepared for the fact that his mood might change, and knows to report any of that too. He’s willing to take these risks for the sake of stopping smoking, so we’re helping him to take a really positive step in his life, aimed with all the information he needs to do it safely.

That’s just a small example of how I practice holistic medicine in my daily life. All over the NHS, at every level, other healthcare professionals are doing the same thing in their practice. We don’t declare ourselves to be holistic, because its such second nature that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. Maybe its time to start reminding people-and ourselves- that conventional medicine does, fundamentally, mean holistic medicine. 

Hxxx