Should you try a “natural alternative” before medication?

Natural remedies are popular. But are they an appropriate substitute for medication?

Natural remedies are popular. But are they an appropriate substitute for medication?

The idea of taking medication can be frightening. And as consumers and patients that want to make our own informed health decisions, it’s understandable and even appropriate to question our physicians when they recommend drug treatments. We need to understand the rationale for any medication that’s recommended or prescribed, the benefits of therapy, the side effects, and if there are any other approaches that might be more appropriate. Dietary supplements and natural health products are widely marketed as being safe and effective, and are occupying more and more shelf space in pharmacies, usually right beside the pharmacy counter. Many of my patient encounters in the pharmacy have included a discussion on the merits of drug therapy, versus the supplements that may have flashy packaging and impressive claims of effectiveness.

One encounter from my time working at a local pharmacy still sticks with me. I met a new patient who was anxious and eager to get my advice. He’d been cautioned by his family doctor that he was on the borderline of being diagnosed with diabetes. He had come to the pharmacy seeking a supplement that could help him avoid diabetes and medication. Rather than recommend any supplement, I suggested that the best approach he could probably take would be to lose some weight and get some exercise – it could be more effective than any supplement or drug, and would definitely help his health. He agreed, and then asked me what supplement he could take that could help him with some weight loss.

This type of discussion occurs all the time, and seems more common when there’s a lack of trust in the physician, or when the goals of treatment aren’t understood. The patient, reluctant to accept the physician’s recommendation, heads to the pharmacy for what they believe is a second opinion. In some cases, the patient may question the physician’s advice: “All my physician wants to do is prescribe drugs,” is a statement I’ve heard more than once. In those that are reluctant to accept medical treatment, there’s often a willingness to consider anything that’s available without a prescription – particularly if it’s perceived as “natural.” Natural products and dietary supplements are thought to be gentle, safe, and effective, while medicine may be felt to be unnatural, harsh, and potentially dangerous. Yet when I explain to patients that there’s actually little evidence to suggest most supplements offer any meaningful health benefits, I am sometimes met with puzzled or dismissive looks. The supplement industry’s marketing has been remarkably effective, glossing over the fact that the research done on dietary supplements is overall unconvincing and largely negative when it comes to having anything useful to offer for health. Continue reading

Is a profit-first philosophy in retail pharmacy compromising working conditions and patient care?


The tension between the “business of pharmacy” and the professional responsibilities of pharmacists, as health care professionals, has always been present in retail (“community”) pharmacy practice.  For much of the past several decades, pharmacies have generally been owned by pharmacists, elevating pharmacy ethics and professional responsibilities to the level of the owner. But the era of the independent pharmacist-owner-operated pharmacy is disappearing, and the era of the massive pharmacy chain is upon us. In the United States, CVS and Walgreens command 50% of the retail pharmacy business in major cities. In Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart has been purchased by the grocery giant Loblaw, and the Rexall chain has been purchased by American giant McKesson.  And in the United Kingdom, retail pharmacy chain Boots has about 25% of pharmacy market share.

With this retail consolidation, are we seeing a decline in the autonomy of the front-line pharmacist? A scathing series of articles in The Guardian is raising questions about whether pharmacy giant Boots is putting  a drive for profits ahead of safe and appropriate pharmacy care. And pharmacists are speaking up. Continue reading

Science-Based Medicine in New York City!


A day of Science-Based Medicine, a weekend of science and skepticism

If you’re interested in science, skepticism and medicine, then NECSS, the NorthEast Conference on Science and Skepticism, is the conference for you. NECSS will be held May 12-15 in New York City at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The entire program is available schedule here.

The conference will welcome over 400 people and include panels, presentations and performances. Included in the program will be a full day of Science-Based Medicine, featuring speakers from the blog like including yours truly.

SBM day is Friday, May 13. Here’s the current schedule:

9:30-9:40 10 minutes Welcome
9:40-10:15 35 minutes Functional Medicine is Dysfunctional Harriet Hall
10:15-10:50 35 minutes Science-Based Dentistry: Where the Truth Meets the Tooth Grant Ritchey

10:50-11:00 10 minutes Break

11:00-12:10 70 minutes Natural Disaster: Dietary Supplements Scott Gavura & Jann Bellamy

12:10-1:40 90 minutes Lunch

1:40-2:15 35 minutes Kids & CAM: Playing Make-Believe with Children’s Health John Snyder
2:15-2:50 35 minutes Chronic Lyme: When Life Hands You Lemons Saul Hymes
2:50-3:25 35 minutes Your Baby’s Spine Will Be Just Fine Without Chiropractic Adjustment Clay Jones

3:25-3:40 15 minutes Break

3:40-4:45 65 minutes Debate: Should Physicians “Fire” Anti-Vaccination Patients? John Snyder, Saul Hymes, Clay Jones
4:45-5:20 35 minutes Bayesian Statistics Steve Novella
5:20-6:05 45 minutes Ask Us Anything: Audience & Twitter Q & A All Speakers
6:05-6:15 10 minutes Closing

Registration is open.

The entire conference looks amazing. I hope to see you there.

Statins for everyone?

Should you take a statin to prevent heart disease?

Should you take a statin to prevent heart disease?

Preventing a disease, before it occurs, seems intuitively obvious. But when it comes to taking medicine to prevent a disease before it occurs, people tend to be much less comfortable. Not only are there the concerns about the “medicalization” of healthy people, there are good questions about benefits, risks (like side effects), and costs. Cardiovascular disease will kill many of us, so there’s been decades of research studying how to prevent that first heart attack or stroke. But even if you’re born with good genes and do everything possible to prevent heart disease (e.g., don’t smoke, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, moderate your alcohol, and keep your weight down) you’re still at risk of heart disease. And if you have one or more risk factors for disease, your lifetime risk goes up dramatically. Once you’ve had your first heart attack or stroke, the effectiveness of medical therapy has been established. Drug therapy with medication like the “statins” class of cholesterol-lowering drugs reduces subsequent deaths from cardiovascular disease. Given their unambiguous effectiveness, and the high likelihood that many of us will eventually have cardiovascular disease of some sort, the idea of “pre-treating” otherwise-healthy people with drug therapy to possibly prevent that first event has been held out as a potential public health strategy. There’s new evidence that tests this hypothesis, and the results are surprising. Continue reading

The questionable ethics of selling complementary and alternative medicine

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is no longer fringe, and anything but the mom-and-pop image that manufacturers carefully craft. CAM is big business, and most Americans today take some sort of supplement. The impetus for my blogging (and tilting at CAM windmills) emerged from years spent working in a pharmacy with a heavy reliance on CAM sales. If it was unorthodox, this store probably sold it. Conventional drug products (the ones I was familiar with) were hidden off in a corner, and the store was otherwise crowded with herbal remedies, homeopathy, and different forms of detox kits and candida cleanses. All of this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard about in pharmacy school – so I started researching.

I looked at CAM from a scientific evidence perspective, the one I was taught in pharmacy school, using the same approach I’d take when assessing a new drug. Did the evidence support the claims made about these products, or not? The answers, as you might expect, were often the same. There was little or no credible evidence to demonstrate CAM had any meaningful benefits. I started blogging my own reviews as a way of documenting my own research, while offering some information to anyone on the Interwebs who might be searching for evidence.

Over time my blogging focus expanded, as I asked myself the inevitable questions: How could implausible products with no scientific backing even be approved for sale at all? I discovered the regulatory double-standard allowed for anything considered a dietary supplement (or in Canada, a “natural health product“) and the history and politics that have made CAM the “Wild West” of health care, with a marketplace that prioritizes a manufacturer’s right to sell over a consumer’s right to purchase a product that is safe and effective. Given the retail marketplace that’s been established by regulators like the FDA and Health Canada, I’ve turned my focus on to health professionals, who have an ethical responsibility to put patient interests above that of commercial interests. From a professional practice and medical ethics perspective, I have argued that health professionals that sell or promote CAM are on ethically shaky ground, and compromise the credibility of the profession.

Despite the lack of evidence that CAM (in general) offers any health benefits at all, it’s been remarkable to watch its popularity grow, to the point where even large pharmacy chains now sell aisles of products that are implausible and often highly questionable. Generally meeting these changes with a collective shrug, the pharmacy profession has even tried to lower its own ethical standards. While I do get the occasional encouragement from some of my peers, most just say “it’s business” or “the customer wants it, and these are legal products.” My argument today is CAM fails even this lower ethical bar. Continue reading

Are pharmacy-based genome tests credible and useful?

Is genomic testing as useful as pharmacies claim it can be?

Is genomic testing as useful as pharmacies claim it can be?

Despite science’s ability to develop sophisticated and targeted new drugs, predicting the effect of a drug in an individual is still maddeningly difficult. Not every drug works for everyone that takes it. Similarly, the very same drug can be well tolerated in some, but can cause intolerable side effects in others. So-called “targeted therapies” were supposed to improve our accuracy, by focusing on specific targets on cells. That’s been good – but not sufficient to make drug treatments more consistently effective. Pharmacogenomics is the relationship between your DNA and how your body responds to drugs: how they’re absorbed, how they work, and how they’re eliminated from the body. It has been heralded for some time as the white knight of drug therapy. The genome revolution was supposed to remove (or dramatically reduce) the uncertainty in medicine, telling us which drugs will work more effectively, and which we might want to avoid. And to some extent, the genome-based treatment era is already here. There are over 100 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now that include genomic information in their prescribing information. For a small number of drugs, genomic testing is warranted. Increasingly, genomic testing is more accessible, moving from the research bench directly into retail pharmacies for sale when you pick up your prescription. Given pharmacies have a less-than-stellar record of selling laboratory testing that isn’t validated or even useful, I was immediately skeptical when I saw a new story on pharmacy-based genomic testing. Titled “Your pharmacist’s secret weapon: How your DNA can help perfect your medication,” it appeared a recent Globe and Mail column: Continue reading

Is it ethical to market complementary and alternative medicines?

naturopathic and homeopathic

Very excited to announce that a paper I collaborated on with Dr. Chris MacDonald has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Bioethics, as part of a series on complementary and alternative medicine.  It’s also open access (for now):


Is it ethical to market complementary and alternative medicines? Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are medical products and services outside the mainstream of medical practice. But they are not just medicines (or supposed medicines) offered and provided for the prevention and treatment of illness. They are also products and services – things offered for sale in the marketplace. Most discussion of the ethics of CAM has focused on bioethical issues – issues having to do with therapeutic value, and the relationship between patients and those purveyors of CAM. This article aims instead to consider CAM from the perspective of commercial ethics. That is, we consider the ethics not of prescribing or administering CAM (activities most closely associated with health professionals) but the ethics of selling CAM.

The full paper is here.


Macdonald, C. and Gavura, S. (2016), Alternative Medicine and the Ethics Of Commerce. Bioethics, 30: 77–84. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12226



What’s the best detox or cleanse?


With 2016 upon us, it’s finally time get serious about your health. You’re resolving to eat better and exercise more. But first, you need to reset your body – and purge yourself of all of your lifestyle and dietary overindulgences. But how? The options seem limitless, and everyone has advice: There’s Dr. Oz, Gwyneth, and even your favourite Kardashian has advice: They’re all telling you how it’s essential to “detox”, “cleanse” and “flush” away all of your toxins. Your local pharmacy has an ever-growing section of products promising a newer, more pure you: supplements, homeopathy, ear candles, and an entire aisle of “detox kits” all promise to suck toxins out of your body. Don’t forget your local naturopath who sells IV vitamin drips as the detoxification solution to your problems. The approaches may differ but all the advocates are completely convinced of one fact: Detoxing will deliver a renewed body and better health. Not only will you look better, you’ll feel better. It is a new year. Wouldn’t a purification from last year’s habits (dietary and otherwise) of last year be the best way to start? Well before you pull out your credit card, there is one fact that “detox” advocates are reluctant to tell you. Continue reading

Should regulators treat the supplement industry like the tobacco industry?

The supplement industry fights any regulation that might limit sales or improve safety or quality. Should we use tobacco control tactics with the industry?

The supplement industry fights any regulation that might limit sales or improve safety or quality. A new paper suggests that governments should look to tobacco control tactics to make this industry safer for consumers.

The idea that “natural” products are safe and effective has been so effectively marketed to us that many don’t recognize it as a fallacy. Much of the supplement industry is built around an appeal to nature. Supplements are described as natural, gentle, and “holistic”. Medicine, especially prescription drugs, is the opposite. They’re “chemicals”. They’re risky and dangerous – just look at that list of side effects! Supplements are packaged beautifully, have impressive claims, and at health food stores and increasingly, taking space in pharmacies. Drugs are hazardous: They may come in a plain vial, with warning labels, detailed information sheets, and cautious statements about their effectiveness. Is it any wonder that many consumers, when faced with health concerns or medical issues, instinctively think of supplements as a safer alternative? Purveyors of supplements and alternative medicine have leveraged this fallacy so effectively that it’s even guided the regulations that allow their sale. Regrettably, the result is a marketplace that puts consumers’ interests last. The supplement industry has completely stacked the odds against the consumer, challenging their ability to make informed decisions about their health. Most supplements on the market have never been properly tested for safety or effectiveness. And those that have been tested have largely been shown to be ineffective – or in the case of products like vitamins, often unnecessary. And while there are undoubtedly some ethical companies out there, the industry is regularly revealed to resemble a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Despite this, the industry has gone from success to success – in terms of sales, at least. In 1994, supplement sales were about $4 billion in the US. It’s now a $37 billion industry that is remains only lightly regulated – or largely unregulated. With recent action taken against fraudulent products, there are more questions than ever about how to force the supplement industry to make consumer protection a priority. A new paper in Drug Testing and Analysis makes a provocative suggestion: Local and state governments already regulate another hazardous product: tobacco. Can lessons learned from the tobacco wars improve the safety of supplements? Continue reading

Review of 17 “alternative” therapies finds no evidence of effectiveness

Reiki is as science-based as The Force

Reiki is as science-based as The Force

Health care systems around the world are being pressured to “do more and spend less”, to make healthcare more cost effective. Owing to aging populations and the growing cost of providing health services, there’s more scrutiny than ever on the value of different health treatments, with the goal of reducing the use of treatments that don’t help. The Choosing Wisely initiative was establishing expressly for this purpose. Regrettably, while well-intentioned, Choosing Wisely hasn’t had as much of an effect as you might expect. Medicine can be slow to change, as David Gorski discussed in a post over at Science-Based Medicine. Unless we ruthlessly scrutinize what we do for effectiveness, and are willing to act on what we learn, self-driven change is unlikely. One way that governments (and insurers) can dramatically reduce the use of a health service or treatment is to simply stop offering it, or paying for it. Yet stopping funding is something that is relatively uncommon in health care. It seems to be much more difficult to stop a practice, possibly owing to inertia, a reluctance to change, and the sometimes-vociferous protests that can emerge from patients or physicians that may feel that their preferred therapy is effective. The formidable challenge of stopping health care funding, once it has started, is one reason why this blog has been very critical of the expanding scope of practice being granted to alternative medicine purveyors – the legislative alchemy that is the first step towards insurance coverage. Because once that’s in place, it will be far more difficult to stop it. So it’s essential to understand the evidence. Continue reading