Magical health thinking manifests in therapies, devices and, with stents, too

Magical thinking moves all too many Americans to pursue strange ways to improve their health, even if the risks are hugely apparent and the rewards wildly open to question. Just consider:

  • Would you immerse yourself for supposed health reasons in a sub-zero controlled climate “colder than the coldest naturally occurring temperature recorded on Earth” or allow an object so frigid that it burns to be applied to parts of your body?
  • Would you lash together an everyday 9-volt battery with wires and electrodes purchased at any old electronics shop, and zap yourself in the head, hoping to improve your cognition?
  • Would you simmer beef or pork bones and vegetables in ordinary tap water in a pan on your home stove, then believe that the resultant broth would “detoxify your liver, lubricate your stiff joints, patch up the holes in your gut, and erase your wrinkles,” as well as help to heal a ruptured Achilles’ tendon?
  • Would you guzzle a supposedly healthier, tea-like fermented brew called kombucha that many Asians gag at and that “tastes a lot like vinegar and can sport tendrils of live cultures that resemble jellyfish?” (Oh, and by the way, this concoction has surprisingly high amounts of alcohol in it.)

Oh, my. If you’re a dedicated consumer of health and healthcare information, you’d see reports like these and wonder if the Holy See hadn’t already long ago apologized to Galileo and the world hadn’t journeyed far into an age of science, and more particularly, a time of greater education, widespread skepticism, and know-how about evidence-based medicine.

Well, check that. As the Wall Street Journal reports, cardiologists, it seems, have started to regain their perspective on a familiar, all-too-common remedy: heart stents. As the Journal notes:  “Unnecessary use of … stents to clear blockages in diseased coronary arteries fell by about 50 percent between 2010 and 2014. The drop came after new practice guidelines were issued in 2009 as a quality improvement strategy designed to discourage stent use in patients with stable disease and minimal symptoms of chest pain.”

It seems that doctors saw great results when they implanted stents to open blocked heart paths when patients were in the midst of heart attacks and thought, without due proof, that the devices would be more generally beneficial to cardiac patients. Hundreds of thousands of patients have been stented before further research showed that many didn’t benefit. This magical thinking led to costly, wasteful, and inappropriate procedures, a new study finds. Though surgeons appear to have curtailed the procedure, the researchers also noted that it may be that doctors and hospitals are using different billing codings to make this seem so.

As I’ve said before, modern medicine, indeed, offers myriad miracles. But careful, thoughtful, and skeptical consideration needs to be given to all healthcare practices.

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