Blog | Friday, February 11, 2011

"Clinically proven?" There's no such thing


I heard yet another commercial on the radio this morning for some menopausal cure-all that was "clinically proven" to reduce hot flashes, improve sleep, increase energy, help you lose weight, and probably cure bad breath to boot. Anyone who calls in the next 10 minutes gets a month's supply for free. "Hurry." Don't.

At least they finally stopped running the one for the colon cleansing product that helped remove the "five to ten pounds of waste some experts* believe are spackled along the inside of the large intestine." (*Emphasis mine. "Some experts" also believe the moon landing was a hoax, the Holocaust never happened, and homeopathy is effective medicine.) Somehow this colon cleansing stuff helps you preferentially lose belly fat. Not really sure what belly fat has to do with five to ten pounds of stuff spackled inside your intestine, but they're not selling logic. "Call right now for your free sample." Or not.

Then there was the pediatrician hawking the natural, safe, clinically-proven effective sinus cure that sounded suspiciously like saline spray. "Hurry and call right now." Don't bother.

Words are my friends, and I hate to see people abuse them.

"Clinical" is an adjective referring to "that which can be observed in or involves patients." It's the hands-on part of medicine that can't be replicated in a lab or taught from a book. There is virtually no such thing as "proof" in the scientific sense. Laboratory and patient-based medical research can strongly suggest things. Scientific evidence can accumulate supporting things, and the more the better, of course.

When I send a patient for an X-ray or other imaging study, I get a report back (eventually) from the radiologist describing what was seen, along with an interpretation of what those images might mean. Reports that are anything other than completely clear-cut usually end with the phrase, "Correlate clinically." This means that whatever it was they saw could mean any number of different things depending on the signs and symptoms present in the specific patient. I know the patient; the radiologist just sees the images. I'm the one who's supposed to put it all together. This is a correct use of the term "clinical."

"Clinically proven" is a meaningless combination of words that mean someone is trying to sell something. Isn't there some kind of rule against making stuff up, even in advertising? Obviously people are used to it in politics, but those are opinions, to which everyone is entitled. What people are NOT entitled to is their own facts. There is no clinically proven remedy available without a prescription for menopausal symptoms, quick and painless weight loss, or sinus congestion that can be purchased from a radio ad, because there's no such thing as "clinically proven."

This post by Lucy Hornstein, MD, appeared at Get Better Health, a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.