Medical Myths: Speaking the Unspeakable

It seems that when the British Medical Journal published “Medical Myths” by Dr. Rachel Vreeman and Dr. Aaron Carroll, it violated a professional taboo. Apparently we are not supposed to openly talk about how doctors are human, too.

It seems that when the British Medical Journal published “Medical Myths” by Dr. Rachel Vreeman and Dr. Aaron Carroll, it violated a professional taboo. Apparently we are not supposed to openly talk about how doctors are human, too. Speaking the unspeakable, Medical Myths unexpectedly ruffled many feathers by examining the existing medical evidence-base and challenging seven popularly held medical myths with their own following conclusions.

Myth #1: People should drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

Though commonly recommended, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support the benefits of this, though the dangers of drinking too much water have been studied and documented.

Myth #2: Reading in dim lights ruins your eyesight.

Dim lights may cause eye strain during reading, but all effects caused are only temporary and do not persist.

Myth #3: Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker or coarser.

Shaving hair simply cuts off the finer tapered parts of the hair, giving the appearance of coarser hair. Studies also show that, since the shaving only removes the dead portion of the hair above the skin and not the live portion underneath, the rate of growth is not likely to be affected.

Myth #4: Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy.While tryptophan is known to make people drowsy, turkey does not contain a large quantity of tryptophan. Large meals however are likely to induce drowsiness as blood flow and oxygen sent to the brain decreases, explaining the fatigue people feel after Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners.

Myth #5: We use only 10% of our brains.

A statement often attributed to Albert Einstein, advances in imaging technology show that there are no dormant areas in the brain.

Myth #6: Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death.

The actual growth ceases after death, but the dehydration of the dead body leads to retraction of the skin, making the hair and nails appear longer creating an optical illusion.

Myth #7: Mobile phones create considerable electromagnetic interference in hospitals.

Though minimal machine interference has been reported in hospitals due to cell phones, no deaths have been reported as a result.

While some of the myths did not have enough evidence to confirm them, others were studied and proven wrong, even though many still believe them to be true. As a result, Carroll and Vreeman concluded the following:

- “Even physicians sometimes believe medical myths contradicted by scientific evidence.”

- “The prevalence and endorsement of simple medical myths point to the need to continue to question what other falsehoods physicians endorse.”

- “Examining why we believe myths and using evidence to dispel false beliefs can move us closer to evidence based practice.”

Debunking the Debunkers

Published in December 2007, the article immediately caught the attention of international the press and was reported on by several media outlets, including the BBC, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Responses flooded Internet forums, such as the New York Times website, which was so overwhelmed that the authors were requested to post a response to the comments. The attention was surprising and unusual, given that it was for an article published in a scientific journal.

While the general public response to the study was quite favorable, this was not the case from the medical community. As Vreeman and Carroll’s study attempted to debunk seven commonly believed medical myths, the medical community responded by attempting to debunk the debunkers.

Offended and defensive about their profession, angry physicians challenged the study from every angle the validity of the research methodologies, the accuracy of the findings, the authors’ interpretations and many of the comments were downright belligerent. Some reported that they had never believed any of the stated myths to begin with and were insulted that the study implied physicians were ignorant. Respondents to the BMJ website accused the authors of being irresponsible and stupid for publishing their study, labeling it “unbelievable” and “shameful.”

When we spoke with Dr. Vreeman, she admitted that she was overwhelmed by the public and media response to the study, though she notes that some of the facts were misconstrued.

“First and foremost, this was not a systematic survey of doctors’ beliefs. We did not set out to prove that doctors believe myths. We set out to show how everyone (including doctors) is human and believe some [of these myths]. This was a ‘lighthearted’ way of pointing out that even doctors can believe some myths. I am sure there are physicians who are so smart that they knew all of these were false. However, we’re two pretty educated physicians, and we both believed some of these,” admits Vreeman.

For many of those who responded to the article, the most important points may have been lost. Among sensational headlines such as “7 Medical Myths Even Doctors Believe,” many lost track of the fact that Carroll and Vreeman did not set out to be Discovery Channel mythbusters, nor did they aim to attack the medical profession’s competence.

“The point is not that doctors don’t know stuff, but that human beings often believe myths and doctors are human beings … [they are] just as likely to make mistakes as others, and should not be afraid to admit as such,” explains Vreeman.

The bottom line is that doctors are just as susceptible to blindly holding beliefs without questioning whether they are true. But given all of the new studies, clinical trials, and drug developments appearing daily, it is clear that the medical field is constantly revising and rewriting itself. With open acknowledgement that medical knowledge is ever-changing, is it that far off to declare that doctors’ knowledge of what is accurate today may be inaccurate tomorrow? Isn’t this true for all of us? Hundreds of years ago, we all knew the earth was flat.

Despite the acknowledgement of medical errors and the landmark IOM report, To Err is Human, the reality is that the fallibility of the physician community is still a touchy subject. But with the number of hours worked, numerous details that must be memorized, and countless number of contradictory interests such as insurance companies and pharmaceuticals, it’s fair to assume that physicians can’t possibly have all the right answers because there are too many possible answers available.

Perhaps by debunking the seven medical myths, Carroll and Vreeman debunked the greatest medical myth of all, and showed that doctors are, indeed, fallible.