Blog | Friday, January 7, 2011

Three take-home lessons from Wakefield's alleged fraud

This week, the British Medical Journal reports that the research underlying Dr. Andrew Wakefield's anti-vaccine crusade is fraudulent. The discredited work, which falsely linked childhood vaccines to autism, has caused needless morbidity and deaths in children from preventable illnesses in the U.S. and elsewhere.

There are several instructive points from this "lesson" about medical communication and news:
1. People aren't always rational in their decisions about health care.
2. When most of the population is ignorant in basic science and statistics, misinformation spreads easily. In effect, our limited educations render us vulnerable to speculation and hype. A result "sounds good" or plausible, so we believe it, never mind the details.
3. Sometimes even educated people are so desperate for an explanation, or for a solution to a medical problem, that they'll believe a smooth-talking scientist or doctor because they want to believe what he's saying is true. If vaccines were to cause autism, that would give people a sense of control, i.e. a way to avoid autism.

The truth is that, for the most part, we still don't know why diseases occur in some people and not in others. Not understanding can be a frustrating, unsatisfying circumstance because it makes us feel powerless. In this light, maybe it's easier to understand why some grasp at straws and, recognizing this pattern of behavior, doctors might more effectively counsel patients to choose rational measures.

This post originally appeared at Medical Lessons, written by Elaine Schattner, ACP Member, a nonpracticing hematologist and oncologist who teaches at Weill Cornell Medical College, where she is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine. She shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology and as a patient who's had breast cancer.