Under My Skin

I don’t have much use for evidence


In my practice, I have little use for evidence-based medicine.

Patient reading health care document regarding a medical problem. Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Of course I am not against evidence. I respect and value evidence. I just have little day-to-day use for it. Maybe your practices are different from mine, but I spend my working days seeing cases ...

Where evidence is irrelevant:

  • there is nothing wrong but the patient thinks there might be (an itch, a burning sensation, a mole that may or may not have changed).
  • the condition is self-limiting and needs no therapy (viral rashes).

Where evidence could help, but there isn’t any:

  • there is no useful available treatment (age-related hair thinning in women).

Where evidence may be statistically significant but clinically trivial:

  • pills that make herpes simplex cold sores go away in 6 days instead of 7, acne cream that reduces lesions by 70% instead of 40% (so that after 12 weeks the patient has five pimples instead of eight).

Where evidence is unimpressive or unconvincing (to the patient, who often stops treatment because “it wasn’t working” or “it made me worse”):

  • the condition is recurrent, and the patient interprets recurrence as failure (eczema, psoriasis).
  • the condition (psoriasis, eczema, acne ) moves around, and the patient interprets success (fewer spots) as failure. (“It’s come in a new place it never came before” or “I never used to get pimples on my jawline.”)
  • slam-dunk clearances are few, and instead, every possible permutation in the condition’s course happens – persistence, recurrence, extension, spontaneous involution, going away in one place while proliferating in another, etc. (warts, alopecia areata).

Where patients find other kinds of evidence more compelling than mine:

  • “I stopped your cream because calendula/tea tree oil/Vicks VapoRub/apple cider vinegar/avoiding gluten works better” (eczema, rosacea, onychomycosis, etc.). This dynamic is not limited to dermatology. How many Crohn’s patients have I met who say they left their conventional physicians with their standard treatments and now see a naturopath or acupuncturist? Their doctors don’t know they left, or why, because it’s impossible to remember someone who isn’t there, and their patients never told them why they left. These patients tell me they are now “doing better.”

Where evidence is outweighed by other patient considerations:

  • topical 5-fluorouracil or imiquimod for superficial basal cells or noninvasive squamous cells in a patient who can’t reach the spot, doesn’t want to be bothered, or just wants the damned thing cut off.

Then, of course, there are cases where evidence is crucial. It’s just that, at the moment, I can’t think of many. Besides which, I’ve lost count of all the patients who had exhaustive food or patch testing, been found sensitive to any number of chemicals and foods – exotic or otherwise – dutifully avoided all of same, yet still break out intermittently and inscrutably, just like all my other atopics.

I’ve concluded that it must be me, or at least the small slice of the planet I work in. Maybe if I practice for 70 years instead of 40, or on five continents instead of the corner of just one, I will figure it all out.

Dr. Alan Rockoff, a dermatologist in Brookline, Mass.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

To be clear: I am not a therapeutic nihilist. I want to use verifiably effective treatments for my patients, just as I wish such to be used on me when I need treatment. It’s just that instances in which compelling, decisive evidence makes a crucial difference don’t come up all that often. Evidence applies to populations, whereas I treat people, one at a time.

Meantime, I will muddle along, concerned that one drawback of the emphasis on “evidence” (i.e. statistics) not often noted is its contribution to depersonalizing medical practice, reducing the therapeutic interaction between two people to iterated instances of quantifiable throughput. If you can’t measure it, you didn’t do it and it doesn’t exist. But it does exist. Like every clinician, I see and do it every day.

As Hippocrates supposedly said: Life is short, and art long, opportunity fleeting, experimentations perilous, and judgment difficult.

Evidence notwithstanding, judgment remains difficult, mine and the patient’s.

Now that I’m done with evidence, please stay tuned for future columns where I take on motherhood (unacceptably gendered!) and apple pie (fattening!)

Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass., and is a longtime contributor to Dermatology News. He serves on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and has taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Write to him at [email protected].

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