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JULY 29, 2009 10:15PM

More thoughts on The Huffington Post

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my piece in Salon, "The Huffington Post is Crazy About Your Health" focuses on the dubious medical advice espoused by many of  its bloggers.  Here are some more thoughts about the Post and Ms. Huffington.

 

In her 2006 book, On Being Fearless, Arianna Huffington wrote about two very difficult personal experiences.  The first was during a doctor’s visit at Georgetown Medical Center, where the doctor found she had a lump in her breast.:

 

“I had actually noticed the lump and assumed it was just a harmless cyst. It had happened before.  No problem. But now I was hearing the worst, things like ‘biopsy’ and ‘surgery’ and the lump would not ‘aspirate’ and how it had to ‘come out’ right away. "

 

 I felt myself beginning to black out and asked if I could lie down on the examination table while the doctor explained what all this meant.  As if through a thick fog, I heard her talking….” 

The second was her account of a miscarriage she suffered when she was married to former U.S. Senator Michael Huffington when she was 36 years old, something she wrote about that with a great deal of honesty and emotion as she described how after giving birth, her baby wouldn’t open his eyes. 

 HuffCare 

It’s hard to know if these experiences colored Huffington’s view of physicians and the medical establishment.  But it’s clear that she does harbor some skepticism of American health care. In one her posts, she featured a blogger known as Pundit Mom,  in which the two discussed the dual role of the working mom.  “Indeed, I sometimes think that when the doctors take the baby out, they put the guilt in,” said Pundit Mom.  It’s hard to see how Huffington could focus on that kind of comment without having an innate discomfort with doctors.  

 Huffington’s most fierce comments against modern medicine have been reserved for psychiatry and neuropharmacology.  It’s obvious from several of her blog posts since 2005 that she’s suspicious—even cynical—about what doctors prescribe to treat anxiety, depression and a whole host of other psychiatric disorders. That’s particularly true with child psychiatry. Take one of her blog posts, where she riffs on an old camp song: 

"Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda" has now become "Hello Druggist, Hello MD." With apologies to Alan Sherman:

 Hello Druggist,

Hello MD,

Here I am at

Camp Poison Ivy

Camp is very

amusin',

And they say we'll all have fun if we take our Wellbutrin. 

Contrast these comments with those she made about alternative medicine.  For example, she certainly speaks with much more fervor about her experiences with things like mercury detox, and her view that we live in a toxic environment.  Again, from her 2006 book Fearless:  

 “Soram Khalsa, MD, is the founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association and a passionate advocate of detoxification as central to delaying the effects of the aging process and reducing the likelihood of chronic degenerative diseases.  When I started on Dr. Khalsa’s detoxification program, I was stunned to find out how much mercury I had in my body…as my body started to detoxify, the changes in my mental clarity and energy level were so remarkable that I’ve made his detox program part of my regimen.” 

Huffington’s faith in heavy metal detox programs is bothersome.  First, the process of heavy-metal detoxification involves using chelation therapy, where a person must be given intravenous drugs.  That’s not without potential risks.  Nothing in medicine is, but when the effectiveness of a therapy is unclear or unproven, then that risk doesn’t seem worth taking.  There have been scattered reports of people dying as a result of undergoing chelation therapy, including children.

 

 In addition, as I mentioned in my piece for Salon, the doctors like Dr. Khalsa demonstrate a patient has levels of heavy metals is by sending a urine sample to special labs for analysis.  However, these tests use methods that artificially raise the levels of metals in the urine. It’s known as provocative testing because people are given drugs that raise the levels of metals in their urine.  Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired physician wrote about the pitfalls of provoked testing on his website, Quackwatch.org , described an experiment comparing subjects who had the provoked test to control subjects: 

“Several years ago, a well-designed experiment tested workers who had industrial exposure to mercury. The researchers found that provocation with DMSA raised the 24-hour average urine mercury level from 4.3 µg/g before chelation to 7.8 µg/g after chelation [2]. Because most of the extra excretion occurs toward the beginning of the test, it is safe to assume that the provoked levels would have been 2-3 times as high if a 6-hour collection period had been used."

Conclusion:   

 “Practitioners who use the urine toxic metals test typically tell patients that provocation is needed to discover "hidden body stores" of mercury or lead. However, the above experiment proved that provocation raises urine levels as much in exposed workers as in unexposed control subjects and that rise is temporary, should be expected, and is not evidence of ‘hidden stores,’”   

The resulting report drives people to spend lots of additional money (in most cases, insurance does not cover either the urine tests or the therapy) treating themselves for a “disease” they don’t have.  

 LessFear 

All of it makes me wonder much of the same of Arianna Huffington and the Post as I did with Oprah Winfrey.  What are our health priorities and what advice do we really need to keep ourselves healthy?  Winfrey features the advice of Christiane Northrup (who also blogs for HuffPo), Suzanne Somers and touts cosmetic procedures.  Huffington seems to believe that the answer to our problems is insulating ourselves from a “toxic environment.”  

In fact, for someone who has regularly accused others of fear-mongering, she isn’t innocent of spreading some herself.  Consider her comments from 2006 in a blog called “America’s kids at risk”:  

“America's children are at risk not just from the kidnappers, pedophile priests, and horny teens trolling MySpace that fill our headlines and sweeps weeks news broadcasts but from the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and the chemicals that fill their homes and schools. And from our own government.” 

Ironically, in criticizing “news broadcasts” about bleeding and leading, Huffington commits the same crime herself. "Kidnappers, horny teens and pedophile priests" don’t rank anywhere near the top of the list for what ails our children.  Rather, it’s something far less headline grabbing—accidental injuries. The WHO reported that each year, 950,000 kids die from injuries.  90% of those injuries could have been prevented.   In the United States,  the CDC  shows that 12,000 kids lose their lives from preventable accidents and injuries:  for children under one, the leading cause of death is suffocation. For children 1-4, it's drowning, and for kids 5-19 its automobile accidents.          

In the end, I hope Ms. Huffington and her Post begins taking their responsibility about informing people about their health more seriously. Science, unlike politics, is an ideology, with "facts" available to twist and turn to meet the needs of the side using them.    But from day 1, the Post has turned it into just that.  It's time instead that they treated science for what it is:  a discipline, where you can get the answer (whether you like it or not) by applying a method, one that has stood the test of time.

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A similar trend is noticed in Bill Maher's comments on health issues. Is it indeed a lack of knowledge about Science, Health, Disease and Biology or is it colored by friends and unfortunate personal experiences?
I wish Dr. Parikh had discussed the "provocative" results a bit more; I am not a doctor, but after a quick read, I wasn't at all sure that his conclusions were logical. disigny
Listening to people talk about medicine, I'm repeatedly amazed at how little the public understands. My smart, educated friends often accept someone else's bad or good experience as proof of something or other. My greatest fear at the moment is this: how we can engage in a sensible debate about health care , when people have so little understanding?
I hear your call to Oprah and Arianna to temper their curiosity with a little more vetting. I think you're right, they should take their influence a little more seriously. But there's this recurring theme in your columns which links the rampant skepticism among Americans with the irresponsibility of your media, and not where I think it should lie--with the irresponsibility of your public health care policy.

We have the same problem of misinformation in Canada. But it's not at the same level because Canadians don't have to wrestle with all the different agendas that doctors have south of the border. And we're not confronted daily with all the adverstising and evidence of health care as a for profit business.

So I do sometimes feel like you're barking at the wrong dogs. If your television and blogs were less flooded with pharmaceutical ads (which we have NONE of in Canada. Even on blogs, they don't bother advertising to us because our pharmacists are required by law to give us the generic brands. So different ads pop up in Canadian based browsers). If medicine seemed more of a public service, and less of a product. I think you'd find a lot of this skepticism subside.

Finally, I'm not sure it's fair to use a conversation between two women about their deliveries as evidence for some innate discomfort with doctors. When science makes it possible for you to experience all the psychological and physical discomfort of labor, then you can judge.
I agree with about half of what you say. But why are you so unsympathetically anti-alternative medicine? It's not that peoples' fears of Western medicine are entirely unfounded. Everyone knows that traditional doctors have advocated dangerous practices, just as naturopaths, quacks, and everyone else have. Stents, unhelpful or dangerous pharmaceuticals, and on and on.

What's more, embracing a course of treatment that's "untested" doesn't mean you're irrational or a-rational -- it just means that you don't like the options on the table, and aren't willing to wait around for someone to properly test yoga or acupuncture or whatever it is you want to do. And, the side-effects of many of the treatments you demonize are positive (yoga, spiritual counseling, etc.).

In short, you seem to have a chip. You are clearly biased, and aren't thorough in your research. You lump the best of alternative medicine with the worst, and berate anyone who challenges, even in the smallest way, current establishment thinking.

And I have to ask: do you truly believe advocacy of alternative therapies is this country's biggest medical issue right now?
@Adam,
not anti-alternative medicine at all-just pro-evidence-based medicine
Full disclosure, I dislike the site administrators at the Huffington Post. I admit that this has colored my opinion of Ms. Huffington somewhat. But I have to say that I have a few concerns about your analysis.

You say: "Heavy-metal detoxification involves using chelation therapy, where a person must be given intravenous drugs. That’s not without potential risks. Nothing in medicine is, but when the effectiveness of a therapy is unclear or unproven, then that risk doesn’t seem worth taking. "

Ms. Huffington obviously felt some benefit, so who are you to judge that it doesn't seem worth the risk?

If "special labs" are elevating the levels of mercur, why isn't a regulatory agency (FDA, AMA) prosecuting these fraudulent labs? Maybe you should report them. Isn't that your duty as a healthcare provider entrusted with a medical degree?

So the labs use tests that raise the levels of metals in urine AND people are given drugs that raise the levels of metals in their urine? Wow.

I admit, I too am generally skeptical about doctors, with good reason in my experience.

I generally trust one person with taking good care of my health and that person is me. Not conventional doctors and not physicians who practice so-called natural medicine.

In the final analysis, I have to agree with Ms. Huffington about what people really need to fear... "the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and the chemicals that fill their homes and schools. And from our own government." True that!
The problem most of us have with alternative medicine is that it is not harmless. Here are my main objections:
1. It takes advantage of people at their time of weakness. From sham cancer treatments to chelation therapy, people are pouring money into things that have no proof.
2. It takes people away from things that are proven effective. Immunizations are a prime example. Reports of unimmunized children dying from H. Influenza disease and other preventable infectious diseases are increasing. Recently a 7 month old baby died from HIB epiglottitis. I really don't want to see this illness again.
3. Proponents of alternative medicine say false things about "traditional" medicine. Jim Carey's comments are classic in this case.
4. It is considered "hip" to like alternative medicine. Remember what mom used to say: "If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it?" It's Hollywood peer pressure to do something dumb.

When my patients do something that is "alternative" and it doesn't harm them, I have no problem. If they ask, I tell them that I don't know but that some of these things only serve to cause your wallet to get thinner. If they make them feel better, then it is fine - as long as they are not harmed.

Would Ms. Huffington appreciate a bunch of doctors telling her how to run a successful blog or how to write properly? She has the expertise and we don't (Parikh notwithstanding).
What seems to be crazy to me is the preoccupation with physical "health" issues without working to promote a society that is mentally healthy. (And I'm talking about the kind of mental health that's achieved without drugs.) I'm not saying that people don't have actual physical conditions that cause problems or discomfort--I am saying that we are insane to not be able to acknowledge that that is part of what is means to be a living thing. We are not meant to be 100% healthy all the time and at some point all of us with die--and we don't get to know when or why.

The health care practices we need are those that come out of compassion and interest in the well being of the person seeking comfort. Generally, alternative practices seem to focus on the whole person and often (though plenty times not as you point out) acknowledge that it isn't a disease that is treated but a person.

On the other hand--really, being so preoccupied with finding fault or reasons for some of the health conditions is obnoxious without any examination of the crazy culture we live in. The explosion of people and particularly kids with disabilities like autism point to something else besides vaccines and chemicals put into the body. I'm not saying it's the "cold mother" theory--but we live in a country where people make crap to eat knowing full well that what you put in your body becomes your body. In other words, we have choosen to make ourselves sick--and we can't blame the government or anyone but ourselves.
"In other words, we have choosen to make ourselves sick--and we can't blame the government or anyone but ourselves."

When a government is responsible for preemptive war, covert foreign interventions, torture, renditions, secret prisons... etc that is not securing the future health of its citizens nor is it healthy for the countries who's people become targets of the expansionist policies and greed of empire builders in the US government.

I agree a holistic approach to treating illness is best. I think this is what conventional doctors have to embrace more. The doctor complains about intravenous drugs used in chelation therapy, yet realize for instance how toxic chemotherapy drugs are. They kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells. More often, a cancer patient dies from the cure! I believe there must be more holistic, less toxic and less invasive ways of treating cancer, but maybe they just are not pursued because there is a financial incentive to use these ridiculously expensive chemo drugs.
Well---it's OUR government and if people had protested when the warmongers were put into power by the Supremes things would be different wouldn't they? (Look at those Iranians! They make us look like wusses!)
Early in your piece you commit a factual error by stating that Michael Huffington was a US Seantor. He bought a congressional seat in the Santa Barbara area and tried to buy a senate seat vs. Dianne Feinstein but was defeated. It wasn't long after that that Arianna shed both her condervative politics and her husband but I digress.
In ancient Serbia and Greece, mouldy bread was a traditional treatment for wounds and infections. Can you imagine someone telling you to strap a loaf of mouldy bread to that knife wound you just incurred? And yet somehow they were on to something. In 1928 Alexander Fleming noticed that mould released a substance that inhibits bacterial growth, grew a pure culture of the mould and discovered "Penicillin”.

If they'd waited centuries for Fleming's scientific confirmation before strapping that green loaf of bread to their wounds, thousands of people would have needlessly died from infections. It is stories like this which have done much to diminish my skepticism with regard to strange therapies. You never know where healing is going to come from.
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Funny when those who rant know not their facts. Fact is - chelators do NOT have to be given IV - and often are not. And, the evidence is piling up - don't listen to me - go check out something reliable like www.pubmed.com (that would be the good old government sponsored reasearch reporting site) to check out how the multitudes of toxins in our environment not only are ending up in us, but at the bottom of things (oh, yeah - scarily common things) like Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, coronary artery disease, asthma.....

Ya know what they say...progress happens when the old farts die off.
I'm with prettyneat, learn your facts before you post. Not matter what you want to post. even if it's about Losing Baby Weight, learn the truth.
In short, you seem to have a chip. You are clearly biased, and aren't thorough in your research. You lump the best of alternative ladder racks for trucks with the worst, and berate anyone who challenges, even in the smallest way, current establishment thinking.