Friday, February 20, 2009

Q&A with Harriet Hall M.D. of

Today's Q&A is with Harriet Hall M.D., you can find out more about her at her website

Now on to the questions and answers:

I'll treat this first question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself and talk a bit about your educational background and research interests?

My name is Harriet Hall. I’m a retired family physician and also a retired Air Force colonel. I graduated from the University of Washington School of Medicine, did an internship at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in California, spent 6 years in Spain assigned as a General Medical Officer, did an Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base, and held various assignments as a flight surgeon, family physician and in combination patient care/management positions such as Chief of Clinic Services. Women were in the minority in medicine, the military, the flight surgeon job, and in aviation (I was an instrument-rated private pilot with my own plane). In all these areas I ran into prejudice and had a lot of frustrating and funny experiences which I wrote about in the book I recently published, “Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon.” After retiring, I got interested in alternative medicine and quackery and started investigating and writing about it. I became an editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and a contributing editor to Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic magazine, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and a founding member of the Science-Based Medicine blog. My website is

Talk a bit about your work with quackwatch and the science based medicine blog.

I got started with Quackwatch by participating in its Healthfraud discussion list, where I still contribute regularly and where I have learned a great deal about the health nonsense being marketed around the world. Dr. Barrett asked for a volunteer to look into dubious genetic testing, and I ended up co-authoring an article with him and went on from there. (I had co-authored two articles with him before I ever met him – thanks to the wonders of the Internet). The Science-Based Medicine blog began in January 2008 when Steven Novella invited me and 3 other MDs to collaborate. I write an article there every Tuesday. We try to comment on controversial subjects in medicine, new studies, bogus claims, etc. and we promote the concept of true science-based medicine as opposed to the common conception of “evidence-based” medicine.

What role do you think that, "New Media," can play in spreading sound medical information?

I think it plays a wonderful role. PubMed and reliable resources like the NIH and American Cancer Society websites abound. Wikipedia explains scientific concepts and covers topics not available elsewhere. Quackwatch has been invaluable. We SBM bloggers got frustrated waiting for articles to be published in the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and elsewhere, and the blog allows us to respond to issues in a timely fashion and to provide a resource where readers can get “the other side of the story.”

As a follow up, is, "New Media," living up to it's potential?

It’s hard to say, but I’ve seen some encouraging signs. I’ve written skeptical articles about Dr. Daniel Amen and Dr. Nicholas Perricone, and when you google for their names, my articles come up in the first few hits, so consumers researching them will find my critiques. My articles on the blog have been cited or copied on websites as far afield as Malaysia and I’ve gotten fan mail and inquiries from places like Estonia, Sweden, Turkey, Colombia. What is perhaps most encouraging is that people are writing to ask me questions. Sometimes I can direct them to reliable sources. Sometimes there is no reliable information and I can help by producing some reliable information and publicizing it via the Healthfraud discussion list, the blog, the magazines I write for, and the “Swift” newsletter of the James Randi Educational Foundation. For example, I recently wrote a small piece in Swift critiquing the Genewize company at the request of a reader..

How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the way people utilize the medical resources available in an advanced industrial society?

The answer to that question is pretty obvious: If the public understands science, they will be able to choose rationally. If they are gullible, they will waste money and risk their health. Consumers don’t understand that under the DSHEA, FDA consumer protection no longer covers medicines marketed as diet supplements. We are wasting taxpayers’ money on nonsense: the NCCAM is paying for research on highly improbable and even previously disproven treatments; the Air Force is teaching battlefield acupuncture. Insurance companies and Medicare are reimbursing for treatments that are not scientifically valid.

How would you respond to the accusation that the medical field is too technical for the average lay person to be able to make sound medical decisions regarding their own health?

The medical field is technical, but patients HAVE to make decisions about their health. They can learn to navigate the media, to recognize the signs of unreliable websites, to look for both sides to every story. On our blog we are trying to provide readers with some of the tools they need to think critically about medical issues and claims.

In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place.” If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

I’d ask him to require his medical advisors to read our blog. I’d beg him to de-fund the NCCAM and to repeal DSHEA. I’d point out that even some renowned scientists lack critical thinking skills and fail to truly understand the scientific method. I’d stress the vital importance of critical thinking in every sphere.

I'd like to thank Dr. Hall for taking the time to answer some questions for this blog. I think the medical field is an area that brings into focus the role of the expert in modern society along with the challenges of being an informed citizen of an increasingly specialized world. Personally, I'm still trying to get my mind around the concept of battlefield acupuncture. To give some footnotes for those who may not be up to speed on government alphabet soup:

NCCAM - the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
DSHEA - the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994

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