First do no harm: Listen to Freakonomics Radio Episodes Bad Medicine


How come up to 250,000 people a year die of medical errors and is the third leading cause of death in the USA (Makary & Daniel, 2016)?

Why are some drugs recalled after years of use because they did more harm than good?

How come arthroscopic surgery continues to be done for osteoarthritis of the knee even though it is no more beneficial than mock surgery (Moseley et al, 2002)?

How come women have more negative side effects from Ambien and other sleep aids than men?

Is it really true that the average new cancer drug costs about $100,000 for treatment and usually only extends the life of the selected study participants by about two months (Szabo, 2017; Fojo, Mailankody, & Lo, 2014)?

“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine”Dr. Marcia Angell, longtime Editor in Chief of the New England Medical Journal (Angell, 2009).

Medical discoveries have made remarkable improvements in our health.  The discovery of insulin in 1921 by Canadian physician Frederick Banting and medical student Charles H. Best allowed people with Type 1 Diabetes to live healthy productive lives (Rosenfeld, 2002).  Cataract lens replacement surgery is performed more than three million times per year and allows millions of people to see better even though a few patients have serious side negative side effects.  And, there appears to be new hope for cancer. The FDA on August 30, 2017, approved a new individualized cancer treatment that uses genetically engineered cells from a patient’s immune system to produce remissions in 83 percent of the children and young adults who have relapsed after undergoing standard treatment for B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. (FDA August 30, 2017). The one-time treatment for this breakthrough cancer drug for patients who respond costs $475,000 according to the manufacturer Novartis. Yet, it will be years before we know if there are long term negative side effects.

The cost of this treatment is much more than the average cost of $100,000 for newly developed and approved cancer drugs which at best extend the life of highly selected patients on the average by two months; however, when they used with more typical Medicare patients, these drugs often offer little or no  increased benefits (Szabo, 2017; Freakonomics Radio episode Bad Medicine, Part 2: (Drug) Trials and Tribulations).

As the health care industry is promising new screening, diagnostic and treatment approaches especially through direct-to-consumer advertising, they may not always be beneficial and, in some cases, may cause harm.  The only way to know if a diagnostic or treatment procedure is beneficial is to do long term follow-up; namely, did the treated patients live longer, have fewer complications and better quality of life than the non-treatment randomized control patients.  Just because a surrogate illness markers such as glucose level for type 2 Diabetes or blood pressure for essential hypertension decrease in response to treatment, it does not always mean that the patients will have fewer complications or live longer.

To have a better understanding of the complexity and harm that can occur from medical care, listen to the following three Freakonomics Radio episodes titled Bad Medicine.

Freakonomics Radio episode Bad Medicine, Part 1: The story of 98.6.  We tend to think of medicine as a science, but for most of human history it has been scientific-ish at best. In the first episode of a three-part series, we look at the grotesque mistakes produced by centuries of trial-and-error, and ask whether the new era of evidence-based medicine is the solution.

Freakonomics Radio episode Bad Medicine, Part 2: (Drug) Trials and Tribulations. How do so many ineffective and even dangerous drugs make it to market? One reason is that clinical trials are often run on “dream patients” who aren’t representative of a larger population. On the other hand, sometimes the only thing worse than being excluded from a drug trial is being included.

Freakonomics Radio episode, Bad Medicine, Part 3: Death by Diagnosis.  By some estimates, medical error is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. How can that be? And what’s to be done? Our third and final episode in this series offers some encouraging answers.


Angell M. Drug companies and doctors: A story of corruption. January 15, 2009. The New York Review of Books 56. Available: Accessed 24, November, 2016.

FDA approval brings first gene therapy to the United States, August 30, 2017.

Fojo, T., Mailankody, S., & Lo, A. (2014). Unintended consequences of expensive cancer therapeutics—the pursuit of marginal indications and a me-too mentality that stifles innovation and creativity: the John Conley Lecture. JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery140(12), 1225-1236.

Makary, M. A., & Daniel, M. (2016). Medical error-the third leading cause of death in the US. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online)353. Listen to his BMJ medical talk:

Moseley, J.B., et al, (2002). A controlled trial of arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee. New England Journal of Medicine. 347(2), 81-88.

Rosenfeld, L. (2002). Insulin: discovery and controversy. Clinical chemistry48(12), 2270-2288.

Szabo, L. (201, February 9). Dozens of new cancer drugs do little to improve survival. Kaiser Health News. Downloaded September 3, 2017.


Education versus treatment for self-healing: Eliminating a headache[1]

“I have had headaches for six years, at first occurring almost every day. When I got put on an antidepressant, they slowed to about 3 times a week (sometimes more) and continued this way until I learned relaxation techniques. I am 20 years old and now headache free. Everyone should have this educational opportunity to heal themselves.”  -Melinda, a 20 year old student

Health and wellness is a basic right for all people. When students learn stress management skills which include awareness of stress, progressive muscle relaxation, Autogenic phrases, slower breathing, posture change, transforming internal language, self-healing imagery, the role of diet, exercise embedded within an evolutionary perspective  as part of a college class their health often improves. When students systematically applied these self-awareness techniques to address a self-selected illness or health behavior (e.g., eczema, diet, exercise, insomnia, or migraine headaches), 80% reported significant improvement in their health during that semester (Peper et al., 2014b; Tseng, et al., 2016).  The semester long program is based upon the practices described in the book, Make Health Happen, (Peper, Gibney, & Holt, 2002).  

The benefits often last beyond the semester. Numerous students reported remarkable outcomes at follow-up many months after the class had ended because they had mastered the self-regulation skills and continued to implement these skills into their daily lives.  The educational model utilized in holistic health courses is often different from the clinical/treatment model.

Educational approach:   I am a student and I have an illness (most of me is healthy and only part of me is sick).

Clinical treatment approach:  I am a patient and I am sick (all of me is sick)

Some of the concepts underlying the differences between the educational and the clinical approach are shown in Table 1.

Educational approach Clinic/treatment approach
Focuses on growth and  learning Focuses on remediation
Focuses on what is right Focuses on what is wrong
Focuses on what people can do for themselves Focuses on how the therapist can help patients
Assumes students as being competent Implies patients are damaged and incompetent
Students defined as being competent to master the skills Patients defined as requiring others to help them
Encourages active participation in the healing process Assumes passive participation in the healing process
Students keep logs and write integrative and reflective papers, which encourage insight and awareness Patients usually do not keep logs nor are asked to reflect at the end of treatment to see which factors contributed to success
Students meet in small groups, develop social support and perspective Patients meet only with practitioners and stay isolated
Students experience an increased sense of mastery and empowerment Patients experience no change or possibly a decrease in sense of mastery
Students develop skills and become equal or better than the instructor Patients are healed, but therapist is always seen as more competent than patient
Students can become  colleagues and friends with their teachers Patients cannot become  friends of the therapist and thus are always distanced

Table 1. Comparison of an educational versus clinical/treatment approach

The educational approach focuses on mastering skills and empowerment. As part of the course work, students become more mindful of their health behavior patterns and gradually better able to transform  their previously covert harm promoting patterns. This educational approach is illustrated in a case report which describes how a student reduced her chronic migraines.

Case Example: Elimination of Chronic Migraines

Melinda, a 20-year-old female student, experienced four to five chronic migraines per week since age 14.  A neurologist had prescribed several medications including Imitrex (used to treat migraines) and Topamax (used to prevent seizures as well as migraine headaches), although they were ineffective in treating her migraines. Nortriptyline (a tricyclic antidepressant) and Excedrin Migraine (which contains caffeine, aspirin, and acetaminophen) reduced the frequency of symptoms to three times per week.

She was enrolled in a university biofeedback class that focused on learning self-regulation and biofeedback skills. All these students were taught the fundamentals of biofeedback and practiced Autogenic Training (AT) every day during the semester (Luthe, 1979; Luthe & Schultz, 1969; Peper & Williams, 1980).

In the class, students practiced with surface electromyography (SEMG) feedback to identify the presence of shoulder muscle overexertion (dysponesis), as well as awareness of minimum muscle tension.  Additional practices included hand warming, awareness of thoracic and diaphragmatic breathing, and other biofeedback or somatic awareness approaches. In parallel with awareness of physical sensations, students practiced behavioral awareness such as alternating between a slouching body posture (associated with feeling self-critical and powerless) and an upright body posture (associated with feeling powerful and in control). Psychological awareness was focused on transforming negative thoughts and self-judgments to positive empowering thoughts (Harvey and Peper, 2011; Peper et al., 2014a; Peper et al, 2015).  Taken together, students systematically increased awareness of physical, behavioral, and psychological aspects of their reactions to stress.

The major determinant for success is to generalize training at school, home and at work.  Each time Melinda felt her shoulders tightening, she learned to relax and release the tension in her shoulders, practiced Autogenic Training with the phrase “my neck and shoulders are heavy.”  In addition, whenever she felt her body beginning to slouch or noticed a negative self-critical thought arising in her mind, she shifted her body to an upright empowered posture, and substituted positive thoughts to reduce her cortisol level and increase access to positive thoughts (Carney & Cuddy, 2010; Cuddy, 2012; Tsai, et al., 2016). Postural feedback was also informally given by Melinda’s instructor. Every time the instructor noticed her slouching in class or the hallway, he visually changed his own posture to remind her to be erect.


Melinda’s headaches reduced from between three and five per week before enrolling in the class to zero following the course, as shown in Figure 2. She has learned to shift her posture from slouching to upright and relaxed. In addition, she reported feeling empowered, mentally clear, and her acne cleared up. All medications were eliminated.   At a two year follow-up, she reported that since she took the class, she had only few headaches which were triggered by excessive stress. figure3

Figure 2. Frequency of migraine and the implementation of self-practices.

The major factors that contributed to success were:

  • Becoming aware of muscle tension through the SEMG feedback. Melinda realized that she had tension when she thought she was relaxed.
  • Keeping detailed logs and developing a third person perspective by analyzing her own data and writing a report. A process that encouraged acceptance of self, thereby becoming less judgmental.
  • Acquiring a new belief that she could learn to overcome her headaches, facilitated by class lecture and verbal feedback from the instructor.
  • Taking active control by becoming aware of the initial negative thoughts or sensations and interrupting the escalating chain of negative thoughts and sensations by shifting the attention to positive empowering thoughts and sensations–a process that integrated mindfulness, acceptance and action. Thus, transforming judgmental thoughts into accepting and positive thoughts.
  • Becoming more aware throughout the day, at school and at home, of initial triggers related to body collapse and muscle tension, then changing her body posture and relaxing her shoulders. This awareness was initially developed because the instructor continuously gave feedback whenever she started to slouch in class or when he saw her slouching in the hallways.
  • Practicing many, many times during the day. Namely, increasing her ongoing mindfulness of posture, neck, and shoulder tension, and of negative internal dialogue without judgment.

The benefits of this educational approach is captured by Melinda’s summary, “The combined Autogenic biofeedback awareness and skill with the changes in posture helped me remarkably. It improved my self-esteem, empowerment, reduced my stress, and even improved the quality of my skin. It proves the concept that health is a whole system between mind, body, and spirit. When I listen carefully and act on it, my overall well-being is exceptionally improved.”


Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.

Cuddy, A. (2012).  Your body language shapes who you are.  Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk, available at:

Harvey, E. & Peper, E. (2011). I thought I was relaxed: The use of SEMG biofeedback for training awareness and control (pp. 144-159). In W. A. Edmonds, & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Case studies in applied psychophysiology: Neurofeedback and biofeedback treatments for advances in human performance. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Luthe, W. (1979). About the methods of autogenic therapy (pp. 167-186). In E. Peper, S. Ancoli, & M. Quinn, Mind/body integration. New York: Springer.

Luthe, W., & Schultz, J.H. (1969). Autogenic therapy (Vols. 1-6).  New York, NY: Grune and Stratton.

Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M., & Shaffer, F. (2014a). Making the unaware aware-Surface electromyography to unmask tension and teach awareness. Biofeedback. 42(1), 16-23.

Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002).  Make health happen: Training yourself to create wellness.  Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt. ISBN-13: 978-0787293314

Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014b). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160.

Peper, E., Nemoto, S., Lin, I-M., & Harvey, R. (2015). Seeing is believing: Biofeedback a tool to enhance motivation for cognitive therapy. Biofeedback, 43(4), 168-172.   doi: 10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.03

Peper, E. & Williams, E.A. (1980). Autogenic therapy (pp. 131-137). In: A. C. Hastings, J. Fadiman,  & J. S. Gordon (Eds.). Health for the whole person. Boulder: Westview Press.

Tsai, H. Y., Peper, E., & Lin, I. M. (2016). EEG patterns under positive/negative body postures and emotion recall tasks. NeuroRegulation, 3(1), 23-27.

Tseng, C., Abili, R., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2016). Reducing acne-stress and an integrated self-healing approach. Poster presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Seattle WA, March 9-12, 2016.

[1] Adapted from: Peper, E., Miceli, B., & Harvey, R. (2016). Educational Model for Self-healing: Eliminating a Chronic Migraine with Electromyography, Autogenic Training, Posture, and Mindfulness. Biofeedback, 44(3), 130–137.