Clinical Trial by Fire

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  • 06/29/2006

New op-ed, “Putting Clinical Trials in the Dock.”

Have a read:

Putting clinical trials in the dock
The Roanoke Times
June 27, 2006

BY: Peter Pitts

Pitts, a former Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner, is director of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

“One size fits all” rarely does. From clothes to shoes to hats, few people find that items carrying that label work with their individual bodies. So why do we entrust the health of our bodies — one of the most important assets we have — to a one-size-fits-all mentality?

Unfortunatly, that’s exactly what the influential movement known as “evidence-based medicine” does. It sounds like a good thing, does’t it? Of course we want our health care based on evidence. But the phrase is misleading. As it turns out, “evidence-based medicine” often ignores the most critical evidence of all — the individual patient.

Advocates of EBM urge doctors to base their clinical decisions on research findings. Randomized clinical trials become crucial under this regime: The results of these trials are what doctors overwhelmingly base their suggested treatment on.

The problem is that clinical trials aren’t the only thing doctors need to take into account when making decisions. Evidence-based medicine emphasizes just one aspect of the clinical pie over all the others. This model, which began taking shape in the 1970s, is now broken and outdated.

EBM is stuck in the past. For the most part, it is a retrospective look at clinical studies and head-to-head comparisons of medicines and medical procedures. EBM may involve a careful look at the science. But in practice, it’s very limited. All of these studies are population-based, have rigid exclusion criteria and can’t integrate new information or innovations.

The result is decidedly and transparently a narrow one: to eliminate “practice variation.” Indeed, that’s one of the primary aims of EBM — to standardize medicine around what is known to work.

Practice variation is any treatment that varies from the norm that EBM prescribes. The canard of evidence-based medicine is the belief that practice variation is bad and that one-size-fits-all medicine is good. EBM presupposes that all people respond precisely the same way to all medicines. But that’s simply not true. Disease varies by individual, and selection of treatment must be driven by diagnostics, not just guidelines.

Today, the science of genomics is ushering in an age of personalized medicine. Clinical outcomes can be monitored with increasing precision. Computers can control for hundreds of variables to help doctors and researchers identify what treatment steps matter most in improving care.

People can be screened with a variety of molecular diagnostics to reduce side effects, increase compliance, improve outcomes, and even prevent various forms of cancer, depression, hypertension, Alzheimer’s and immune disorders.

This is 21st-century evidence-based medicine — patient-centric and cost-efficient.

The triumph of modern medicine is that it can be so precisely targeted to a single patient’s needs. It is a dramatic leap forward from EBM’s sweeping approach, which sees only through the broad lens of population-based studies, and the individual patient is kept out of focus.

Unfortunately, EBM continues to enjoy broad support in the policy community. Why? Because at its core, evidence-based medicine is cost-based rather than patient-based. In other words, its standardized approach supposedly saves money. But this is extremely short-sighted.

Evidence-based medicine may provide transitory savings in the short term, but the same patient who takes the cheapest available statin today may very well be the patient costing you — the taxpayer, the policymaker, the thought-leader, the sister, the spouse — big bucks when that patient ends up in the hospital because of improperly treated cardiovascular disease.

The repercussions of choosing short-term thinking over long-term results and cost-based medicine over patient-based are pernicious to both the public purse and the public health.

We need a new approach. The health care community must work together to develop new cost-efficient programs that account for modern genomics and individual screening. Because “one size fits all” treatments are dangerously outdated in this era of patient-centric medicine.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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