Medicine can never be like Facebook, despite what Matt Herper argues over at Forbes. Perhaps he was just trolling for hits on a day when everyone is thinking about the Facebook IPO, but Herper proposed, with apparently seriousness, that medicine needs to model itself on the tech world in order to match the kind of progress– and profits– of a Facebook. But the medical news this week provided ample evidence why this will never happen. Biology is much more complex and resistant than the digital world.
For a medical journalist like myself this was a frustrating week. There were a whole bunch of large, major studies on important subjects published in top journals. But the take-away message from these studies, both individually and combined, is that achieving any kind of real progress in medicine is incredibly hard.
Let’s take a quick look at these studies:
1. Coffee in the New England Journal of Medicine: Despite some of the breathless news reports, some of which erroneously claimed that the study proved that drinking coffee can extend your life, this large study added little or nothing new to our knowledge about coffee. Even the editor of the journal, Jeff Drazen, acknowledged the limitations of this sort of study. The simple truth is this: although coffee is ubiquitous and has been the subject of hundreds of different studies of all different types and designs, we will almost certainly never learn to any degree of certainty whether coffee is good or bad for us. An enormous, decades-long randomized controlled clinical trial, which is the only possible way to ascertain the truth about coffee with any degree of certainty, would be nearly impossible to perform, for multiple reasons.
I don’t want to overstate my pessimism here. I think there is a much more limited lesson that can be derived from this NEJM study and the rest of the coffee literature. From the totality of the evidence it seems highly unlikely that coffee has any large effect, either positive or negative, on important outcomes like mortality or cancer. But we’ll never know for sure about small effects, and we will certainly never know if there are small populations or individuals who are particularly likely to derive benefit or harm from coffee.
2. HDL Cholesterol in the Lancet. In some respects the HDL cholesterol story is exactly the opposite of the coffee story. Unlike coffee, the epidemiology of HDL is clear-cut, and therefore the reverse association of HDL with cardiovascular disease is among the best established facts in all of medicine. But association is not causation, and despite more than a generation of intense research we still don’t know how– or even if– HDL works. In fact, as its name implies, high density lipoprotein is not so much a biological entity as an artificial construct of something that we can measure easily.
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