Monday, September 16, 2013

Isn't Science Wonderful: continued

As I wrote last time, doctors treat strep throat with an antibiotic. Does it work?

That seems a no-brainer. After all, antibiotics definitely kill strep. But the answer turns out to be….maybe. In scientific studies, giving antibiotics to patients with strep throat is not dramatically effective. Some doctors suspect they don’t work. This contrasts vividly with treating strep infections in other areas such as the skin where it’s often lifesaving.

“Wait a minute!!” assert experts including my professors in medical school. It’s true that strep throat goes away in three to five days even if not treated, they point out, but doctors must treat in order to prevent rheumatic fever, a disease that can produce devastating heart disease. Scientists don’t understand why, but a small percentage of strep victims go on to develop rheumatic fever. Antibiotics lower the risk.

Are they right? Again science delivers the answer: maybe. Evidence for preventing rheumatic fever in America comes from a study conducted sixty years ago when rheumatic fever was common in the US. It’s rare now. I’ve never seen a case. Everyone agrees it wasn’t a terrific study.

Some doctors believe that rheumatic fever is so rare in the US that giving an antibiotic is more likely to cause harm (yes, antibiotics can cause harm) than benefit.

While it’s fun to make controversial statements in this blog, with patients I stick to the standard of practice. Inevitably, this means I sometimes give treatments whose scientific basis is weak. If you prefer therapy that’s guaranteed, you must stop seeing scientific practitioners like me and seek out alternative or complementary healers. Google “alternative medicine.”  You’ll notice that their treatments always work.

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