Doctor Val Jones Visits the NYC Skeptics!

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On May 9, 2009, the New York City Skeptics were proud present a lecture by Dr. Val Jones of Better Health, who also blogs on Steven Novella’s excellent “Science Based Medicine” site. There was a very good crowd in the second-floor auditorium at the University Settlement in the Lower East Side. The topic of her talk was “Taking The Science Out Of Medicine: Online Health Fiascos Revealed.”

Dr. Jones (who doesn’t hear that said in a German accent?) began by discussing her own journey into skepticism.  After going to Columbia University for her residency, she started working as a medical consultant, first for MedScape, and then for Revolution Health.  Revolution Health was meant to be a sort of “On-Star” for health.  It was going to be a dashboard to navigate user’s current health options.

Val describes herself as a “former shruggie”  — “a person who doesn’t care about the science versus pseudoscience debate. When presented with descriptions of exaggerated or fraudulent health claims or practices, their response is to shrug.”   While at Revolution Health, she’d seen plenty of articles with dubious health claims cross her desk, but she didn’t see any harm.  She first questioned the wisdom of Revolution Health when some programmers excitedly told her that they’d just created a “hot flash tracker” for menopausal women – a tool that she knew would be completely useless and unnecessary.  Luckily, the Hot Flash Tracker wasn’t implemented.  And then, Revolution Health invented “Medicine Chest”.

The idea behind Medicine Chest was that different patients would rate the treatments for their ailments, those numbers would be correlated, and Revolution Health would suggest the top options for the users of the site.  Dr. Jones, having more than an inkling of medical knowledge, knew that each patient was unique, with different body chemistries and were all taking specific cocktails of medication, some of which would react badly with others.  Her fears about Medicine Chest were seen by Revolution Health as “paternalistic” – Dr. Val trying to limit the options given to patients.  Her fears were proved right when medicine chest began suggesting powerful narcotics for just about any pain treatment, and dog walking to treat diabetes.  She wondered whether being part of Revolution Health was a violation of her Hippocratic oath.  She decided that you don’t empower patients by giving them inaccurate information, but by educating them as best you can.  It was at this point that she discovered Orac’s “Respectful Insolence” and was brought into the world of science blogging.

Dr. Jones showed us just how many sites like Revolution Health there were out there, all with this incorrect concept that a patient’s anecdotal evidence about what medications worked great for what illnesses were going to do more harm than good.  It wasn’t about what “evidence” there was or wasn’t, it was about the science behind the medication.  It was about the majority of the public having a fourth grade education in health and not being able to tell what was good science from bad.  And more, Dr. Jones wanted us to know, there was harm that came from CAM.

Livers destroyed by supplements, arsenic in supplements, colloidal silver turning patient’s skin blue, Hep C from unsterilized acupuncture needles, lungs punctured by acupuncture needles, Dr. Jones has a very large list of CAM going badly that everyone should see.

Unfortunately, as Dr. Jones pointed out, there aren’t a lot of high-powered media skeptics that can help us win the hearts and minds of the populace.  The science story has trouble competing with woo that strikes directly at people’s emotions, rather than their rationality.  But there are people out there trying to look out for us.  A huge crop of science bloggers and other writers who want to tell people how little this pseudo-medicine actually does (She recommends the book Snake Oil Science – just thought we should plug her plug).

Dr. Jones gave a stimulating and interesting lecture with one big message in mind: we need to keep the science in medicine.  Thank you Dr. Val Jones!

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