Posted by: Chris Maloney | March 5, 2014

Can We Trust Medical Studies?

I saw a very exciting study on Tai chi and Qigong today. It showed that using these exercises reduced a range of illness factors for cancer patients. The numbers were significant and very positive. (Study here)  But at the end of the review, the authors placed the following warning: “these findings need to be interpreted cautiously due to the limited number of studies identified and high risk of bias.”

My issue is not with continued caution, it is that I tend not to see the same cautions applied to larger studies on, say, coffee or tea use and prostate cancer.  In those larger studies, coffee was declared helpful, (study here) and tea not significantly so (study here).  But when I looked at the numbers, it looks as if tea is more helpful, they just haven’t done a large enough study yet. Maybe they needed a bigger study, and maybe they should have mentioned that in the review.

But maybe I shouldn’t be reading these studies at all.  According to a January 2014 NYT article (here)  most medical studies are wrong.  The idea is based on the fact that mostly positive studies are published, and unique studies are published while copycat studies aren’t.  If four labs fail to find a result, and the fifth lab finds a result, that fifth lab is published.  But when other labs go to repeat the result, they can’t do it.

The situation is so bad that when a major pharmaceutical tried to repeat studies on cancer, they could not repeat 47 of 53 landmark studies.  Even when they asked help from the original publishing scientists, they still could not replicate the findings.  These weren’t little studies, they were studies that changed the direction of cancer research.

As more researchers scramble for less funding, the situation is only going to get worse.  In some fields, all of the research is being done by the manufacturers of the drugs, with no independent verification.  We’ve had a string of drugs that came to market, only to cause serious side effects and need to be pulled. But the larger issue is whether other drugs can live up to their claims.  The studies making those claims are done by researchers funded by a manufacturer who’s primary goal is market share. Maybe we need to rethink the whole process, and ask harder questions.

In the meantime, I plan to have my cancer patients look into Tai chi and Qigong.  If they do it with permission of everyone on the cancer team, the side effects of mild exercise are minimal and should not interfere with their treatment.  If a later study comes out and says that earlier studies were wrong, the primary side effect for patients was that they got out of their armchair and waved their arms around gently while shaking their booty. I can live with that.


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