The appeal of precision medicine is the promise that we can understand disease with greater specificity and fashion treatments that are more individualized and more effective.
A core tenet (or “central dogma,” as I wrote in 2015) of precision medicine is the idea that large disease categories – like type 2 diabetes – actually consist of multiple discernable subtypes, each with its own distinct characteristics and genetic drivers. As genetic and phenotypic research advances, the argument goes, diseases like “type 2 diabetes” will go the way of quaint descriptive diagnoses like “dropsy” (edema) and be replaced by more precisely defined subgroups, each ideally associated with a distinct therapy developed for that population.
In 2015, this represented an intuitively appealing idea in search of robust supporting data (at least outside oncology).
In 2017, this represents an intuitively appealing idea in search of robust supporting data (at least outside oncology).
The gap between theory and data has troubled many researchers, and earlier this year, a pair of cardiologists from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Broad Institute, Sek Kathiresan and Amit V. Khera, wrote an important – and I’d suggest underappreciated – commentary in the journal Circulation that examined this very disconnect, through the lens of coronary artery disease (CAD).
Last year, we soundly criticized the American Heart Association (AHA) on this blog for its proposal to lower the thresholds for treating cholesterol and getting larger numbers of Americans to swallow statins. We also exposed wellness vendor StayWell, for its mathematically impossible claims of success in British Petroleum’s wellness program. Proving that great minds aren’t the only ones that think alike, StayWell and the AHA have now joined forces. Specifically, the AHA invited the CEO of StayWell, Paul Terry, Ph.D., to help write its workplace wellness policy statement, sort of like Enron inviting Bernie Madoff to help design its financial plan. You don’t learn of this fox-in-the-henhouse conflict of interest unless you read the table on the penultimate page of text.
Naturally, Mr. Terry parlayed this windfall to StayWell’s advantage. The statement: “currently available studies indicate that employers can achieve a positive ROI through wellness” is footnoted to two studies authored by: Paul Terry, along with other Staywell executives. One wonders how a StayWell executive writing policy for the AHA based partly on StayWell’s own articles passes the AHA’s own test of “making every effort to avoid actual or potential conflicts of interest that may arise as a result of an outside relationship.”
How did this conflict of interest get by the peer reviewers? Look at the list of peer reviewers. Prominent among them is Ron Goetzel. Readers of THCB may recall Mr. Goetzel not just from his central role in the Penn State debacle, but also from the ”The Strange Case of the C. Everett Koop Award,” in which it was documented that his committee gave the ironically named award to a sponsor of the award (without disclosing that conflict), even though that sponsor had admitted lying about saving the lives of 514 cancer victims, who, as luck would have it, didn’t have cancer. (The sponsor, Health Fitness Corporation, a division of the equally ironically named Trustmark, has won the Koop award several times, thus proving the cost-effectiveness of their sponsorship.)
If this litany were not enough to dismiss the policy statement forthwith, there is small matter of the actual policy itself, a full employment act for wellness vendors and cardiologists alike, advocating more screening of more employees more often, while ignoring more self-evident facts than Sergeant Schultz. Specifically, they cherry-picked the available literature, continuing to cite the old “Harvard study” whose lead author has now walked it back three times. Except that they didn’t call it the “old Harvard study,” but rather a “recent [italics ours] meta-analysis,” despite the fact it was submitted for publication in 2009, and the average year of the analyses in the study was 2004. Some studies began in the 1990s and were able to use sleight-of-hand to “show savings” despite presumably — in accordance with the conventional wisdom of the era — getting people to eat more carbohydrates and less fat. No wonder Soeren Mattke of RAND Corporation dismissed the Harvard data as archaic in his interview with CoHealth radio in February 2014.