Saturday, September 12, 2020

The argument for medical nihilism

Jacob Stegenga published his book on Medical nihilism in 2018. He aligns himself with therapeutic nihilism meaning that "it is impossible to cure people or societies of their ills through treatment' (see Wikipedia entry). This view is contrary to the widespread faith that people tend to have in medical practice. Financial incentives, even corruption, influence medical science. Its research methods are malleable enough to lead to exaggerated claims for effectiveness. We should not be confident about such claims and should be sceptical that medical interventions are effective.

Jacob comes to a position of medical nihilism without apparently fully taking on board the scientîfic challenges in the application of randomised controlled trials (see eg. Kramer & Shapiro, 1984), perhaps particularly the problem of unblinding (see eg. my letter and follow-up). He emphasises the common small effect size of clinical trials, and the fact that some interventions are removed from clinical practice because they are later found to do more harm than good. Few drugs are ‘magic bullets’ in the sense of specifically targeting the cause of a disease. In practice not all clinical trials generally show a benefit for a drug. Bias, even fraud, in clinical research tends to be minimised.

Jacob makes clear he is not saying that no medical intervention is effective. But assessing the effectiveness of medical treatment generally is not merely an empirical matter because of the methodological problems of such research. Research methodology does need to be improved, which will reduce effectiveness estimates, but even so there are still problems about interpreting the data. There is a sense in which it is impossible to be objectively certain about the effectiveness of the vast bulk of treatment. 

Medicine has not really advanced as much as we might like. Broader socioeconomic conditions of health may well be more important than medical treatment itself. In general, there is too much medicine (see eg. post on my personal blog). Jacob encourages medicine to be gentler in its approach, and not so radically aggressive. There needs to be enhanced regulation of medical interventions. The profit motive in medical research is distorting social priorities. The art and science of medicine needs to be rethought (see another post on my personal blog).

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