November 28, 2022

Evidence-based medicine comes under attack

UK critics claim that it is not transparent and tainted by commercial interests.

In the eyes of doctors and the public, evidence-based medicine is the gold standard of clinic practice. If it’s based on evidence from trials and laboratories, it must be right.

However, evidence-based medicine has its critics, as a bilious outbreak of comment and letters in the BMJ demonstrated recently. Early last month a Glasgow GP, Des Spence, said that the system of EBM had been corrupted. “If we don’t tackle the flaws of EBM there will be a disaster, but I fear it will take a disaster before anyone will listen,” he wrote.

How could anyone fault the notion of treatment based on scientifically validated evidence? No one. But the critics of EBM argue heatedly that the standards for the evidence are often low and tainted by commercial or personal interests. Dr Spence accuses drug companies of manipulating the gold standard to their own benefit. “Today EBM is a loaded gun at clinicians’ heads. ‘You better do as the evidence says,’ it hisses, leaving no room for discretion or judgment. EBM is now the problem, fueling overdiagnosis and overtreatment.”

A number of letters pointed out that, while EBM had its flaws, doctors still need to exercise their clinical judgement. They write the prescriptions, not the drug companies.

Dr Spence was supported by Dr Miran Epstein, a medical ethicist at The London School of Medicine. He writes that “EBM “does not regard polluted information, whether it involves misconduct or not, as a sufficient condition for rendering disclosure inadequate. Thus, it lets informed consent degenerate into a legal fiction and the principle of autonomy into a cynical farce. Worst of all, it is perfectly ethical: being the codified expression of the collective conscience of our medicine, it naturally purports to be moral.”

And he was supported by lawyer and ethicist Charles Foster, writing in the Practical Ethics blog. He believes that the editors of journals need the help of a regulator to sift the wheat from the chaff. “Journals can’t do it all. We need a cynical, skeptical, well-funded, well-staffed and ideologically very left-wing regulator. With huge teeth.”

Michael Cook
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