Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Skepticism Against Non-Neutrality

This is a follow-up to my previous post, Media, Culture, and Half-Truths.

As I blogged that post, the media in other areas were already aflame with skepticism.  To recap from my previous post, the US CDC is considering a recommendation that medical providers should discuss the benefits of circumcision and offer it to parents and any uncircumcised male teenager and young adult (particularly those in a higher sexual risk group).  This is part of the US CDC's plan to help further reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS.

And as I blogged in my previous post, this thread of logic is misplaced and damaging.  I even posted a comment on the US CDC's site.  It's open for commenting between Dec 2 and Jan 16.  The vast majority of the comments on that site are negative towards the new recommendations.  Here's an article that reflects that:

There is also a nice and succinct article on an Oxford ethics blog, A fatal irony: Why the "circumcision solution" to the AIDS epidemic in Africa may increase transmission of HIV, by Brian D. Earp in 2012.  It basically summarizes my thoughts from my previous post (but more eloquently written).

Again, this is not a new topic of debate.  The US CDC first began considering this back in 2009, but had delayed making notable public announcements until now.  As evidenced by an article in the Huffington Post, Male Circumcision and the HIV/AIDS Myth, by Dr. Ali Rizvi.

Heck, this topic has been covered (albeit tongue-in-cheek) by Queerty!  For example:
And to reference my previous post, the media can write about a single topic in two ways.  Queerty is clearly on the opposite side of the articles posted in my previous post.

So anyway, read the links if you desire.  They're there.  I'm a broken record on this topic.  No more on this until the US CDC finalizes its recommendation, one way or the other.  But for the love of democracy, please comment on the link above if you have an opinion you'd like to share!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Media, Culture, and Half-Truths

This is nothing new.  Just warning you now, this is going to be an epically long post.  I've read about this before and I've discussed it before on this blog.  But this topic resurfaces rather frequently.  I see headlines such as:

This is a controversial topic.  There is intense debate among physicians and even residents.  It's a subject that's almost taboo to talk about.  So let's talk about a few things: Media, Culture, and Half-Truths.

I took a course in scientific journalism and media in undergrad, and I walked away from that class appalled.  So much so that I was literally unable to even look at a news article about a scientific or health topic without feeling an intense pang of rage for almost half a year.  Here are some things to know:

The media skews towards catchy headlines.  Sure "Male circumcision benefits outweigh risks, US CDC says" sounds pretty neutral.  But then you have the headlines "Circumcision Guidelines Target Teenagers" and "Feds Say Circumcision Best for Boys," and suddenly those pop out.

The media also has an agenda.  You are supposedly supposed to present both sides of an article (where there are 2 sides to present), but it's almost always skewed and thus almost never balanced.  Take the NY Times article, "Circumcision Guidelines Target Teenagers."  It dedicates a measly 2 paragraphs at the very end on counter-arguments, which although valid, reads as an afterthought.  Take the TIMES article, "Feds Say Circumcision Best for Boys."  There is no mention of any counter-argument.  None.  The LA Times article, "Circumcision cited as defense against HIV in proposed CDC guidelines" is actually the most balanced of the bunch.

The media doesn't understand statistics.  Now, statistics is a difficult concept for even many medical experts to grasp.  So to be fair, the media has no chance.  When presented with numbers, the media will always take the largest numbers presented.  Again, because it's catchy.  For example here, the recurrent phrase that goes "circumcision reduces a man's chances of getting HIV by 50-60%" sounds like a huge deal!  But context is necessary.  That number reported is what's called "relative risk reduction."  What matters to an individual is the "absolute risk reduction."  For instance, let's say the average uncircumcised man's risk of getting HIV is 1 in 1000 (or 0.001%).  So if he's circumcised, his risk goes down by 50-60%, thereby going from 1 in 1000 to 0.5 in 1000 (or 0.0005%).  Well, going from 0.001% to 0.0005% doesn't sound like much of a difference for that individual, and it isn't!  But both numbers could be true.  Going from 0.001% to 0.0005% is a 50% decrease - this is "relative risk reduction," but the "absolute risk reduction" is 0.0005%.  See why the media would choose to report 50% over 0.0005%?  (Note: the average man's risk of getting HIV in the US is WAY smaller than 1 in 1000).

Culture is such a pervasive and unconscious thing that few people even realize it comes into play.  The US, given his history of higher rates of circumcision, has a cultural bias towards that procedure.  Whereas comparable Western countries (Canada, Europe, Australia) don't have this cultural bias.  This is how everyone can look at the exact same studies, the exact same medical literature, and come out with polar opposite conclusions and recommendations.

Here's an excellent article rebutting the latest AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) guideline update on this topic: "Cultural Bias in the AAP's 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision.

People think of medicine and science as containing immutable truths.  Yet in reality the exact opposite is true.  We must constantly challenge and question old scientific truths in order to get ever closer to the Platonic Truths.

Now on to the merits of what's been discussed/argued for in the articles.  The best quote I could find comes from the LA Times article: 
"Dr. Thomas Newman, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC San Francisco, says he believes that the medical benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks but that both are small."
This is the closest thing to the truth out there.  Let's look at the arguments on the table:

  • Circumcision reduces HIV risk by 50-60%.  Well that effect is quite small on an individual level, as illustrated above.  Plus, condoms reduces HIV risk by 90-97% when used correctly.  That "additional" 50-60% is rather meaningless.  Furthermore, circumcision offers zero benefit for those most at risk of getting HIV in the US (men who have sex with men, IV drug users).
  • Circumcision reduces HPV and other STI's.  Maybe true.  But we now have a vaccine for HPV that's 98-100% effective.  And again, condoms.
  • Circumcision reduces UTI's in boys during the first year of life.  This is actually true, however, the risk of getting a UTI is rather small to begin with.  In a healthy uncircumcised baby boy, the risk of getting a UTI is 1 in 100.  In a healthy circumcised baby boy, the risk of getting a UTI is 1 in 1000.  In girls older than 1 year of age, the risk of getting a UTI is like 5-7 in 100.  And how do we treat UTI's?  With antibiotics.  That said, there is a role for circumcision in a baby boy who gets recurrent UTI's (and usually there is some other anatomic problem as well).
  • Risk of complications.  I love how they kind of lumped all complications together, and then say that it's about 1% if the procedure is done before 1 year of age, 9% if done between 1-9 years of age, and 5% if older than that.  I don't know about you, but a 5-9% complications rate is pretty high.  And what are these complications?
  • Infection and inflammation are a common one.  As with any invasive procedure, there is always a risk of infection.  And think for a moment, this baby's penis is healing while he's in diapers, exposed to urine and poop.  That can't be pleasant.
  • Bleeding is another common one.  Well, this could be life-threatening if a baby has a bleeding disorder (like hemophilia).  I'm sure the majority of the time no one does blood tests before the procedure to confirm that a baby does not have a bleeding disorder, and often times a family history can only get you so far.
  • Other risks not mentioned?  Adhesions, meatal stenosis, and accidental amputation are ones that probably should be mentioned.
    • Adhesions: baby's bodies heal very well.  Sometimes parts of where the foreskin is removed will reattach itself to the glans (penis head).  This can cause not only cosmetic issues, but also functional issues.  Sometimes those adhesions are so tight that erections can be uncomfortable.
    • Meatal stenosis: when the opening of the urethra (pee hole) is too small to allow urine to pass.  This problem exclusively happens in circumcised babies and requires surgical correction.  The end of the penis is not meant to interact with the outside world before puberty, and so exposure causes inflammation, which causes swelling, which causes a small hole to get smaller.
    • Accidental amputations: yes, very rare, but very very tragic when it happens.  A handful of cases happen each year and it's impossible to remove this risk entirely.  It may be a 1 in a million risk, but if that 1 in a million is you or your baby, and it wasn't medically necessary, you would probably be pissed off.
  • Also none of the articles mention studies that support the foreskin being a very innervated area of the body.  Whether those nerves play a role in sexual sensitivity and enjoyment is a topic of debate in and of itself, but logically it would make sense that more nerves = more sensation.

So you see, the full discussion is more nuanced.  And when I counsel parents on this topic, I present it as I do above.  Thankfully the area that I'm doing residency in has a low circumcision rate, so this rarely comes up.  But it does once every few months.  Most parents who do opt for the procedure are not undecided - it's like parents who're against vaccines, their minds are made up no matter what you say.  So I counsel towards less intervention, at least insofar as this topic goes.

Thoughts?  I know I'm biased, but again, no one has a truly neutral stance on this topic.  Which makes it difficult to fully "trust" the CDC's recommendations (or anyone's opinion, for that matter) on the subject.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Where in the World is Aek?

Gosh it's been a long time!  About 3 months since I last blogged!  I would say it's because I've been super busy with residency and all that, but that'd be partly a lie.  Truthfully, I've just been lazy.  Heck, I sat on this post for the better part of a month!  So where in the world have I been?

Well, I've run the gamut from the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) to outpatient urgent care clinic.  Such a dichotomy in medicine and such different arenas, haha. 

From there I did another rheumatology rotation, but at another institution.  That was an amazing experience!  It was great just being away in a different area, working in a different system, and exploring.  It was also awkward because I felt like I couldn't perform to my full potential because I was learning the system and the hospitals.  It was almost like being a medical student again, almost.

Then I returned and did neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), which sucks as a second year resident, I must say.  You have double the patients to yourself, your patients are way sicker, and you're expected to just know how to manage things.  And on the weekend it can be just you taking care of the entire unit with the attending, which really sucks.

Currently on pediatric emergency department (ED).  It's alright.  I can see why people would want to do it - shift-based hours, sign in/out, lots of potential procedures, patients are in and out rather quick (MUCH quicker compared to adult ED), and you don't have to worry about continuity of care and the frustrations that can sometimes present.  But this is all not quite my cup of tea.  Parents sometimes bring their kids to the ED for really silly reasons.  I mean, if it's not an "emergency" you should really bring your child to his/her primary care pediatrician first . . .  I won't give examples as that may be a HIPAA violation, but if you see and hear the things I have . . .

There's a certain degree of "brain rot" that I feel as a result.  I live for the interesting cases.  The ones that make me think, that make my mind tingle.  On the flip side, as a patient you NEVER want to be "interesting" to a doctor, lol.  And when something could be rheumatic in nature, my mind definitely tingles - like it hungers and salivates for that diagnostic puzzle.

Anyway, to be totally fair, I can honestly understand why some parents bring their kids to the ED even though it's not medically justified.  There are so many factors and when it is YOUR kid, you freak out.  I get that.  I just wished that people utilized primary care as it was intended instead of the ED as their first stop.

Anywho, next post I'll post pics of my adventures.  :-P