Saturday, November 22, 2014

Misrepresented: EBM

The Gist: Evidence based medicine (EBM) is misunderstood; it's not a randomized control trial (RCT) or "the literature." Rather, EBM is the intersection of the best available evidence, clinical expertise, and patient values [1-2]. Avoid BARF (Brainless Application of Research Findings), with tips from Emergency Medicine Cases

We have a cultural problem.  Clinicians are increasingly called upon to practice EBM.  Yet, the term EBM does not sit well on the palate of many physicians.  Conversations involving a mention of EBM have resulted in some of the following refrains...
"See, my patients are different..." 
"We'll never get an RCT on that..." 
"The culture is different here, I don't want to get sued." 
"Patients don't understand, but they do hold the power with satisfaction scores." 
"It's cookbook medicine."
With these words and reactionary body language, the dialogue quickly shuts down - by both parties.  First, this is a shame.  We should learn from one another but there seems to be a "hard stop" between many who champion EBM and those who find EBM off-putting. Second, this is a misunderstanding.  EBM is not an RCT.  In fact, EBM is not the best statistical methods or the rationing of care. EBM is not nihilism.  

EBM is the intersection of the best available evidence, clinical expertise, and patient values:
"the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research" [1].
Why, then, the misunderstanding? 
Here are some thoughts...

Misrepresentation. EBM is often used to refer to literature or studies, rather than to the application of research and evidence to particular patients and situations, using one's clinical experience (example and discussion: "EBM is Crap").  As a result, EBM may be misunderstood as a cost-cutting venture or a cookbook for medicine [3]. I have been complicit in perpetuating this misrepresentation of EBM.   As a novice physician-in-training with limited clinical experience, I draw predominantly upon the literature base.  I have unknowingly quoted the literature, thereby proudly proclaiming my practice of EBM, while unconsciously dismissing the other components of EBM.  
  • A remedy:  Remind ourselves and others that the evidence is part of the trifecta of EBM, along with the patient's values and clinical expertise.  We can be clear in what we mean by EBM and refrain from referring to a body of literature as EBM. 
Zeal. A religiosity exists amongst many champions of EBM, or people who believe they are championing EBM.  We tout our pyramids of evidence and may scoff at a lack of evidence or rigorous trials.  This may be off-putting as not all fields are amenable to RCTs and patient populations vary.  Moreover, there's a human tendency to form a reactionary attitude when someone exerts a strong identity [4].  Hence, EBM zeal may engender an anti-EBM attitude and cause people to be wary of solid practice changing evidence.
  • A remedy:  While championing good research and employing the best available evidence, we can balance our enthusiasm with important caveats and understand the importance for tailored approaches for patients.  Gentle education about EBM rather than diatribes may aid individuals in understanding the values of EBM beyond evidence.
Fear.  People like to be right.  We may reflexively become defensive when we are (possibly) wrong. EBM or "literature" can be used in an antagonizing way and, subconsciously, a way to exert a feeling of superiority.  "You haven't read that study?"
  • A remedy: Understand that unlearning in medicine is difficult.  Aggressive assertions may push people further away.  Think of it as a Kubler-Ross like grief cycle, as explained in this post.  This may help us become more cognitively flexible, understand the reticence of others, and perhaps make our points more effectively.  

Confusion.  Historically, researchers, clinicians, physicians in training, and allied health professionals have limited understanding of fundamental statistics [5,6].  As such, we may not understand what we're reading or how it applies to our patient population.  We may have difficulty understanding why something we believed was proper at one time is no longer the case.  Often, this is because the research was, in fact, initially wrong or misleading [7]. 
  • A remedy: Read.  This podcast proffers tips on getting started; however, even the most seemingly rigorous papers published in high impact journals are subject to bias (publication bias and otherwise), which can be difficult to parse through.  For example, the oseltamivir (tamiflu) recommendations from Cochrane changed after they were allotted access to data, demonstrating the profound impact of publication bias [Jefferson et al].  More on this here.
Time. The number of journal articles needed to read (NNR) to obtain valid and relevant information is typically cited as 20-200, an insurmountable task [8].  The process of trolling through the literature is time consuming and may be overwhelming.  Frustration can turn into apathy, confusion, and mistrust.
There are legitimate issues with EBM.  Evidence is often subject to the biases of industry and legislative bodies.  Guidelines or recommendations billed as "EBM" may be hijacked by individuals with conflicts of interest or other agendas. Further, the grading of evidence isn't always objective or consistent, as seen by the grading of evidence for thromboylitics in acute ischemic stroke listed in the ACEP clinical policy.   In addition, guidelines harness EBM and disseminate the body of evidence to practitioners.  For example, the 2008 AHA/ACC guidelines are based largely on low levels of evidence and expert opinion,  many of whom have financial conflicts of interest.  Only 11% of the recommendations were based on high quality evidence [9].  

So, while EBM has imperfections in concept, representation, and implementation, the model incorporates the primary things we, as providers, care about - the evidence, the patient, and clinical experience.  Let's understand what EBM means and apply the term and principles appropriately.

1. Sackett DL, Rosenberg WM, Gray JAM, et al. Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. BMJ. 1996;312(7023):71–72. 
2. Greenhalgh T, Howick J, Maskrey N. Evidence based medicine: a movement in crisis? BMJ 2014;348:g3725
3. Straus SE, McAlister FA. Evidence-based medicine: a commentary on common criticisms. CMAJ. 2000;163(7):837–41. 
4.  Maalouf A.  In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
5.  Windish D, Huot S, Green M. Medicine residents’ understanding of the biostatistics and results in the medical literature. Jama. 2007;298(9). 
6.  Mavros MN, Alexiou VG, Vardakas KZ, Falagas ME. Understanding of statistical terms routinely used in meta-analyses: an international survey among researchers. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e47229. 
7.Ioannidis JP a. How many contemporary medical practices are worse than doing nothing or doing less? Mayo Clin Proc. 2013;88(8):779–81.
8. McKibbon KA, Wilczynski NL, Haynes RB. What do evidence-based secondary journals tell us about the publication of clinically important articles in primary care journals? BMC Med. 2004;2:33. 
9.  Tricoci P1, Allen JM, Kramer JM, et al.  Scientific evidence underlying the ACC/AHA clinical practice guidelinesJAMA. 2009 Feb 25;301(8):831-41.

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