Beyond the White Coat

Recalling a medical education


As I look back, there have been many changes during my 25 years of clinical practice. I always assumed there would be advancements in medical research during my career. I expected those advancements to produce progress rather than a random walk.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

One area of positive change has been the recommendations for safe sleep practices for young infants. The Back to Sleep program of the mid 1990s reversed prior advice. It recommended that babies should sleep on their backs to avoid accidental suffocation. Prior advice had been that they should sleep on their stomachs to avoid aspiration. The new advice cut infant deaths by 50%.

Over the years, treatment of gastroesophageal reflux has significantly changed. Polysomnograms are ordered much less frequently. Medications to reduce stomach acid have been associated with side effects and now are discouraged. Raising the head of the crib was common advice in 2000s that was contradicted in the 2010s. For 2 decades I wrote orders in the hospital to elevate the head of the crib. More frequently, the nurses did it without my orders whenever they found a spitty baby.

In May 2019, there was a product recall of inclined infant sleepers. The Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play was one product recalled; 4.7 million of these were sold in the United States in the past 10 years. Because they are used only by infants, and because there are about 4 million births per year in the United States, there are enough of these items stored in basements and garages for every infant to have one.

Investigative reporting by the Washington Post yielded an article highly critical of the product and the way it was originally created and designed. There is outrage in the author’s description of events. Because I have degrees in both engineering and pediatric medicine, I reviewed his assertions and tried to compare his ideal of the medical research world with my reality.

There are 3,600 infant deaths per year in the United States attributed to SUID/SIDS (sudden unexplained infant death/sudden infant death syndrome). From that perspective, I don’t know what 30 deaths in a decade associated with the sleeper really means. There is a high potential for recall bias and confirmation bias. It doesn’t surprise me that there was a delay in assigning blame to an ubiquitous consumer product. The article assumes that medical opinion is monolithic and synchronized rather than undergoing a diffusion of innovation, as described by Everett M. Rogers. Sorting out who knew what and when they knew it will take the courts many years.

Some of my columns earlier this year have appraised medical information in social media, and particularly on Facebook, as being harmfully unreliable. I find when I appraise the quality of medical information in peer-reviewed articles in reputable journals, its reliability isn’t good either.

An example of the unreliability of modern medical research was documented in an article in Hospital Pediatrics in July 2019.

The authors were performing a meta-analysis to determine whether the use of respiratory viral (RV) detection tests are helpful in reducing length of stay or reducing unnecessary antibiotic use. To me, that is a much simpler issue, scientifically, than safe sleep practices. The authors found 23 relevant studies that met their criteria for inclusion. Their overall conclusion was that the quality of the studies, the heterogeneity of the studies, and the statistically significant but contradictory results between the studies made it impossible to prove RV testing is beneficial. However, as I read the article, they cannot – for a litany of reasons – rule out such a benefit. Twenty three published articles in total yielded no reliable medical knowledge.

RV testing already has been widely adopted, particularly in emergency rooms. It is expensive. Clinical guidelines discourage RV testing but those guidelines are based on RV testing in the 2003-2006 time frame, which is obsolete technology. The author of the article on the infant sleepers expressed shock at what he considered to be inadequate medical research supporting the development of the inclined infant sleeper. RV testing is a product in widespread use, with lots of research, and has no better proof of efficacy or safety.

I expected, when I first started practice, that when I was older and grayer I would look back and recall many advances. I anticipated my recall would be of fond memories and of many patients helped. What I didn’t expect was so much of the advice that I provided to be wrong. Perhaps my medical education and parts of the academic research system should be subject to a product recall.

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at [email protected].

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