Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fever, external cooling, biological precedent, and the epistemology of medical evidence

It is rare occasion that one article allows me to review so many aspects of the epistemology of medical evidence, but alas Schortgen et al afforded me that opportunity in the May 15th issue of AJRCCM.

The issues raised by this article are so numerous that I shall make subsections for each one. The authors of this RCT sought to determine the effect of external cooling of febrile septic patients on vasopressor requirements and mortality. Their conclusion was that "fever control using external cooling was safe and decreased vasopressor requirements and early mortality in septic shock." Let's explore the article and the issues it raises and see if this conclusion seems justified and how this study fits into current ICU practice.


These are related but distinct issues that are best considered both before a study is planned, and before its report is read. A clinical trial is in essence a diagnostic test of a hypothesis, and like a diagnostic test, its influence on what we already know depends not only on the characteristics of the test (sensitivity and specificity in a diagnostic test; alpha and power in the case of a clinical trial) but also on the strength of our prior beliefs. To quote Sagan [again], "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I like analogies of extremes: no trial result is sufficient to convince the skeptical observer that orange juice reduces mortality in sepsis by 30%; and no evidence, however cogently presented, is sufficient to convince him that the sun will not rise tomorrow. So when we read the title of this or any other study, we should pause to ask: What is my prior belief that external cooling will reduce mortality in septic shock? That it will reduce vasopressor requirements?