Bioethics Blogs

Jeremy Howick, The Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

The idea that prescribing physicians should be guided by the most reliable scientific evidence seems obvious, but the actual methodology of evidence-based medicine was only introduced in the early 1990s by an international group of clinicians and researchers led by Gordon Guyatt. Since then it has provided a new paradigm for the scientific foundation of medicine and has influenced other disciplines outside of medicine, for example, evidence-based psychotherapy, science and government. The novel concept of evidence-based medicine is based on hierarchies of evidence from opinions of respected authorities, mechanistic reasoning (pathophysiologic rationale), and reports of expert committees at the bottom to various levels of observational studies and finally to randomized clinical trials (RCTs) at the apex of the pyramid. Since RCTs provide the most rigorous testing of therapies, they are the gold standard. When treatments long believed to be safe and effective are subjected to RCTs, many turn out to be as useless as the quackery of snake oil or as harmful as mercury. So, attention to RCTs as the evidence informing clinical judgment and practice is perhaps analogous to results of rigorous experiments in physics which turn out to be very different from our intuitions. Everyone, it seems, is on the bandwagon, from medical societies and pharmaceutical companies to general practitioners and surgeons, in the quest for an evidence-based practice.

Since evidence-based medicine was conceived with the practical aim of improving the efficacy of medicine, it does not appear that there is much of philosophical interest in the concept until one raises the epistemological question, as Jeremy Howick does in this book: What is the evidence for evidence-based medicine philosophy of evidence (9)?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.