It''s been reckoned that around 90 per cent of surgical treatments and interventions have never been scientifically evaluated. This is perhaps not so surprising when you take into account the ethics involved: can a surgeon only pretend to operate on someone with a serious heart condition in order to fulfill the requirements of the double-blind, placebo study?
So, whenever these procedures can be tested ethically, the results can sometimes be shocking, and can throw into doubt long-established treatment protocols.
Take, for instance, the use of bronchodoliators on babies and infants suffering from bronchitis. Viral bronchitis is a common condition, affecting up to one per cent of all babies in their first year. Standard treatment is the use of a bronchodilator and nebulised epinephrine (adrenaline), often a distressing experience for a small baby.
When doctors at a hospital in Brisbane questioned the treatment, and so gave babies either epinephrine or just saline, they found that those given the saline recovered just as quickly as those given the drug. And those in the drug group also suffered a significant increase in their heart rate after each administration.
(Source: New England Journal of Medicine, 2003; 349: 27-35).