September 2019

I went to see the new Downton Abbey movie reluctantly. My wife and her friends, all fans of the popular series, set up the evening for our group of five couples. None of the husbands were thrilled but we have all been married long enough to know that now and then you take one for the woman you love. Surprisingly, it was an excellent movie and very engaging (I am not just saying this because I know my wife might read this). There was even one moment of action involving a gun, so it wasn’t all tea and crumpets.

Downton Abbey provides a glimpse into life in a time where women were rather lightly regarded in society. What influence they had was largely in the background, exerting influence on the men in their lives, for example. Several female characters bemoaned their lack of stature, even among the aristocracy. This was not surprising, given the societal norms of the times. What was interesting, though, was the general theme of the movie previews. Two previews were for movies about female empowerment. One was a for a biopic about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. The other was about a movie adaptation of the book, Little Women. I am seeing this more and more and I do not think it is my imagination that the theme of women’s empowerment seems to be everywhere. From the U.S. women’s soccer team victory celebration to countless commercials on television, there is a continual thread about women overcoming victimization or societal obstacles to fulfilling their individual destinies. Either implicitly or explicitly, the cause is always male domination and subjugation of women.

What began as the #MeToo movement to address sexual violence and sexual harassment in the workplace has morphed into a general movement of women’s rights and empowerment. It is the women’s liberation movement for the age of the internet and social media. I am not a social scientist or scholar in such issues but I do have an interest in them. I am “privileged white male”. I have an office full of women, I am married to a woman, I have two daughters and a daughter-in-law, and three granddaughters. I try my best to be the best boss, husband, father, and grandfather that I can be. I can say the same for most of the men I know. I am all for women’s empowerment, rights, etc, but this emphasis on promoting this everywhere I look has bothered me and I am not sure why. So, I asked someone.

The person I chose is a close female friend who I know retired relatively recently from a top level corporate job in a very male-dominated engineering environment. I asked Susan what she thought of all the recent media emphasis on women’s empowerment. Her answer surprised me.

Susan feels insulted and marginalized. She said that it is as though all of her decades of hard work, and that of her peers in the business/technical world to overcome male barriers to advancement and acceptance were for naught. Susan dealt with discrimination, sexual harassment, not being taken seriously, making less than her male peers for the same work, covering for less than competent male co-workers. She overcame those to become a senior executive. She said that, over the years, she saw major changes in the workplace such that she feels that, today, there are no real barriers to women being as successful as they choose to be and are willing to work for. She challenges the premise that there are male dominated, systematic, societal rules in play to hold women back.

I look at my own field of medicine. Today, women make up just over 50% of all medical students in the U.S. In the corporate world, the numbers are less impressive, with recent reports that only around 6% of CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies are women. Many explanations have been given, nearly all based, at least in part, on the premise of some form of gender discrimination. One different explanation, proffered by no less than Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, boils down to this: women are not willing to be the disagreeable, aggressive type or make the sacrifices necessary to become a CEO at this elite level. He does not feel it reflects either female weakness or male privilege.

An interesting assessment of the #MeToo movement for general female empowerment was provided by Heather MacDonald, an attorney and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an economic think tank. In her words:

#MeToo is going to unleash a new torrent of gender and race quotas throughout the economy and culture, on the theory that all disparities in employment and institutional representation are due to harassment and bias. The resulting distortions of decision-making will be largely invisible; we will usually not know of the superior candidates for a job who were passed over in the drive for gender parity. But the net consequence will be a loss of American competitiveness and scientific achievement.

She goes on:

“Pressures for so-called diversity, defined reductively by gonads and melanin, are of course nothing new…….however pervasive the diversity imperative was before, the #MeToo movement is going to make the previous three decades look like a golden age of meritocracy. No mainstream institution will hire, promote, or compensate without an exquisite calculation of gender and race ratios.”

The sordid Weinstein, Spacey, Epstein, and Lauer episodes that appear to have fueled the #MeToo movement are sad, sorry tales of abuse and victimization of women by serial abusers, but they are aberrations and not representative of men in general. To paint us with the same brush is unfair to all the men who have championed women and never victimized anyone. To further expand these isolated incidents of sexual harassment to represent the state of women in the workplace today is a stretch and unfair to women who persevered and changed the culture. It perpetuates that cult of victimization which, I feel, is definitely pervasive in the U.S. today and ignores all the work of women, like Susan, who came before.  

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The Jokes on you

Flu season 2019 is upon us. Trust me, you don’t want to get the flu. By that I mean the Flu, influenza virus, i.e. the real flu, not simply a winter cold. The flu is a cold on steroids. It is to a cold what King Kong is to a gorilla. It can kill you. I have had the flu. There were moments when death almost seemed preferable to the misery of high fever, pounding headache, every muscle aching, even your skin painful.

I believe in vaccinations. Are they perfect? No. Can they cause side effects? Yes. Are they 100% effective? No. Do they work? A resounding yes. I get my flu vaccine every year. Everyone should, especially health care workers and those working around more vulnerable populations, such as children, elderly, and the sick.

Oscillo at Walgreens. Just $33.99 for 30 pills. You will notice the left slot is sold out.

If you experience the onset of flu-like symptoms- fever, chills, achy muscle, headache, cough- oseltamivir (Tamiflu) has been shown to be effective in reducing the severity of symptoms and cutting down the duration of the flu by 1-2 days. It should ideally be started within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. If taken after 48 hours of onset of symptoms, it won’t do much good.

Among over-the-counter formulations for flu, arguably the king of the hill is Oscillococcinum, or Oscillo, with $18 million in sales in 2008, the last year for which I could find figures. It is the No. 1 over-the-counter drug for flu in Europe. This is a medication manufactured by the  French company, Boiron. Like Oseltamivir, Oscillo claims to reduce “the severity and duration of flu-like symptoms”. That is where all similarity ends. Read on and laugh (or not) with me.

The first part of the joke that is Oscillo is in the name. It comes from oscillococcus, a bacterium “discovered” in 1925 by a French physician, Joseph Roy. He examined blood from victims of the Spanish Flu of 1917 and saw “oscillating” bacteria, to which he attributed the flu, as well as other diseases later proved to be viral. The joke is that oscillococcus doesn’t exist. Never did. It is a made up bug.

How did an imaginary bacterium came to be used to treat the flu? Roy proposed that his bacterium caused a host of conditions in addition to the flu, including cancer, scabies, syphilis, and tuberculosis. For reasons that are unknown, he chose as his source of oscillococcus for his medication, the heart and liver of Muscovy ducks. In a coincidence that could make you believe the universe has a sense of humor, it turns out the reservoir for Avian (bird) influenza A is largely in wild ducks. You just can’t make this stuff up. As they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then. Could it be that Roy inadvertently stumbled onto a treatment for flu, somewhat like Fleming’s discovery of penicillin?

The punch line of this medical joke came when homeopathy entered the picture. Never ones to let facts or science stand in their way, practitioners of homeopathy continue to cling to the delusional ideas of their founder, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, in 1796. Yes, you read that right. 1796. Hahnemann’s two key concepts were that “like cures like” and the law of “minimum dose”. The first means that to cure an illness, you administer something that produces similar symptoms in healthy people. To cure a fever, you give something that would make a healthy person feverish. To treat abdominal pain, you use something that causes abdominal pain. And, so on. “Like cures like” has never been proven and there is zero scientific support for it. Period.

The second is the law of minimum dilution, i.e. the more dilute a medicine, the stronger it is. Minimum dilution would be funny if people did not take it seriously. Homeopathic medications are formulated based on a system of dilution. A 1C dilution means that the medicine is diluted 100 times. To make a 2C dilution, you take that final product and dilute another 100 times, and so on. By the time you get to a 13C dilution, this would be equivalent to one drop of a substance in all the water on earth. Boiron’s Oscillococcinum is diluted to 200C. This would equate to one molecule in the known universe! In simple, chemical terms, Oscillo is plain water.

Homeopaths get around the fact that their medicine contains not a single molecule of the original substance by claiming that the water retains a “memory” of the substance. I don’t have adjectives suitable to do justice to how ridiculous this is. If you believe this, you will believe anything.

How does a medication based on an imaginary germ, diluted to the point where not a single molecule of the original preparation remains become a popular medication to treat the flu over, not years, but decades? Even more remarkable is that several reviews that I pulled up gave it 5 out of 5 stars! There is no explanation other than the triumph of faith over reason or perhaps the power of placebo. It has to one of the greatest jokes played on the public in medical history, a real thigh slapper. At $1 per pill, Oscillo’s Boiron must be laughing all the way to the bank.  

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Money talks and, at up to $2500 per patient, it practically shouts.

No, this isn’t about the historical gunshot in Lexington, Massachusetts that marked the start of our revolutionary war of independence. I am referring to a shot much less revolutionary and much more controversial: the O-shot for women. What’s that you say? What is the O-shot?

If you are a woman and watch television, read women’s magazines, or access social media, you have probably come across the O (for orgasm)-shot. It is the brain child of Dr. Charles Runels, an internist with an extensive, somewhat checkered, resume best known for his use of platelet rich plasma (PRP) for everything from facial rejuvenation, also known as the Vampire Facelift, to enhancing sexual responsiveness with the O-shot and its male equivalent, the P (for priapism or penis)-shot.

The O-shot involves taking a woman’s own blood, spinning this in a centrifuge to isolate a small fraction of plasma with a high concentration of platelets, then injecting this into the clitoris and “G-spot” (anatomists and physicians still doubt the existence of this mythical spot which has never been pinpointed). Why platelets? Platelets are tiny fragments in the blood that play a crucial role in blood clotting. They are not true cells, lacking some fundamental structures, like a nucleus. They contain a great deal of growth factor hormone and this is supposed to be the source of their therapeutic properties, some of which sound a little too good to be true.

The goal of injecting PRP into these highly sensitive, erogenous areas is to enhance responsiveness in achieving an orgasm , as well as stronger orgasms. How does it do this? Well, no one really knows. You see, there are really no studies to determine how the O-shot works, or whether it truly works at all. In theory at least, the O-shot increases blood flow to the area and “regenerates” the tissues. “Regenerate” as used here sounds suspiciously like a weasel word; it sound great but means little without further explanation.

Clinical use of PRP is analogous to the use of stem cells. Both are supposed to have amazing regenerative effects but no one knows how they work, or how best to use them. While the science of both is intriguing and, in some cases, promising, the promotion and marketing of these products for a dizzying array of purposes has far outstripped the science and proof of efficacy in nearly all cases is lacking. That has not dissuaded practitioners like Runels and the many who have followed in his footsteps, paying him for the use of his trademarked “O-shot” label. Money talks and, at up to $2500 per patient, it practically shouts. How long the effect lasts is variable but is on the order of eight months to a year or so. Like Botox, the O-shot must be regularly repeated.

It is disconcerting how many supposedly legitimate gynecologists and other practitioners have leaped onto this particular bandwagon. When I Googled “O-shot”, I came up with 1.67 BILLION results!! Scrolling through the first few dozen pages of results to find unbiased articles in the mass of hits for practices extolling its virtues and offering the procedure, was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I did find one on the website for the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) of the National Library of Medicine, a usually reliable database. This was submitted by a pair of Egyptian gynecologists who appeared to accept the claims of the O-shot uncritically, drawing their conclusions from Runels himself. This isn’t science.

I have to hand it to Dr. Runels. Many promoters of questionable medical treatments are loathe to undergo those treatments themselves. Not him. He began by injecting his own penis with PRP  around 2010 and, as the story goes, the results were so impressive that his sexual partner insisted that he inject her and share the wealth. Reportedly, both reaped the benefits of explosive post-treatment sexual performance. Voila, the O-shot was born. Medicine advances in mysterious ways.

What about all the positive reviews from former patients? As I have repeatedly said, testimonials are an unreliable and unscientific way to assess medical treatments. This goes double for online reviews. For one thing, positive reviews ignore the large role that the placebo effect may play, especially in something which is as much mental as it is physical. For another, I suspect women for whom the O-shot doesn’t work are going to be slow to admit they wasted thousands of dollars on an unproven procedure. Despite claims that the O-shot is painless, with near immediate results, I have read several reviews of painful injections followed by painful swelling and tenderness for weeks afterwards. Procedures which claim near universal success with no downside make me skeptical as few invasive procedures, especially in an area so charged with psychological, psychosocial, emotional, relational, and sexual overtones, are so uniformly effective. In addition to its supposed sexual benefits, the O-shot is also touted as a treatment for urinary stress incontinence and certain vaginal conditions, such as lichen sclerosis. Again, there is little support for this from reputable studies.

Jen Gunter, MD

One staunch critic of Dr. Runels and the O-shot is Dr. Jen Gunter, a Canadian obstetrician/gynecologist and pain medicine specialist who takes Runels and his O-shot to task for failing to offer any data supporting the claims made for this procedure. She has uncovered a number of disturbing facts from his past, which are readily accessible. In 2009 he was disqualified as a clinical investigator by the FDA for injecting vulnerable subjects with an unnamed vaccine without approval for this from an institutional review board, a requirement for just about any study involving human subjects. The subjects in this case were homeless persons from a local shelter.

Also in 2009, he was fined $5000 by the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners for misuse of hormone replacement therapy in two women and was restricted from prescribing hormones for two years. In addition, Dr. Gunter raises ethical concerns about Runels’ experimenting in the manner described above using his sexual partner, which appears to be a breach of the doctor/patient relationship according to the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 9.1.1.

The topic of orgasms is one guaranteed to generate great interest. Given the poorly understood and often elusive nature of the female orgasm, it is not surprising that many women uncritically seek out methods to achieve what they believe they are entitled to and, for whatever reason, are not getting. Even for me, as a physician, it was difficult to sort through the hype from legitimate information regarding the O-shot. I fear what it will come down to is that women have to decide who is the more credible, Dr. Runels or Dr. Gunter. I know who I would choose.

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