Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Another Thing That Doesn't Work

To the growing list of bright ideas that don’t work we can now add another: a bypass surgery to prevent strokes. Until yesterday, many doctors thought that if they connected an artery in the scalp to a deeper vessel to improve blood flow to the brain, they could help patients with poor circulation avoid strokes.

But no. It turns out that the surgery itself actually caused strokes! According to a $20-million government-funded study published on Tuesday, 14.4 percent of the patients who had the surgery had a stroke within a month of the operation. By comparison, the stroke rate for the group that did not have surgery was only 2 percent.

The evidence was so overwhelming that the study was stopped early. As the New York Times noted, “What had seemed to make sense medically did not work out in fact.”

This is becoming a troubling refrain for medical “cures.” A few weeks ago we got a nearly identical report on the use of brain stents to prevent strokes. (Those who got the device actually had so many more strokes than those assigned to control groups that that study, too, was stopped early.)

And a few weeks before the stent study came out we got a similar report regarding the drug niacin. Doctors had hoped that it would prevent heart attacks by raising the levels of “good” cholesterol in a patient’s blood. But that, too, didn’t pan out. According to that study, niacin provided no benefit over simple statin therapy.

What’s the lesson here? Just because you think a thing should work is no guarantee that it will work. And you never know whether it will work until it has been independently tested.

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