The Vale of Strange

The Shop on Peculiar Hill Cover

You may wonder what that picture’s doing here and what that title ‘The Vale of Strange’ is about. It should all become clear as this post progresses. But I think you will agree that ‘The Vale of Strange’ sounds like a fair description of where we find ourselves when we’re trying to argue the case for a better deal for people with M.E. When we’re trying our best to set out the facts as clearly and concisely as possible, yet finding that many of those in positions of power seem to have little regard for the truth, preferring to stick with what their colleagues in command tell them they must believe, rather than study the evidence for themselves.

Writing here back in June about the review of the NICE Guidelines for ME/CFS, I said “it’s anyone’s guess what will happen when the interminable review is finally completed in 2020 – though the smart punters would probably put their money on CBT and GET remaining in favour”.

Unfortunately subsequent events have suggested that those ‘smart punters’ would be right. The choice of personnel for the committee which will review the guidelines, including as it does many who appear to be wedded to the use of CBT and GET, while omitting many of those who hold the opposite view, suggests that I was being unduly optimistic when I spoke of it being ‘anyone’s guess what will happen’. When you see an old, dilapidated truck heading for the edge of a cliff, controlled by a committee of drivers, about half of whom want the vehicle to maintain its present course, you don’t have to think too carefully to predict what happens next.

Of course, there are some excellent people on the committee; there are just not enough of them. There are, as I say, far too many who have supported GET and CBT over the years, who have bought into the unproven, ill-founded biopsychosocial theory of ME. Some people, including at least one voice I usually respect, have tried to excuse the inclusion of these GET apologists on the grounds of the need for ‘balance’. But what kind of balance would this be?

Just to recap what most of you reading this will already be well aware of: CBT and GET, as referred to in PACE, are potentially harmful therapies which emerge from the unproven biopsychosocial theory of M.E., while PACE, the largest trial purporting to support this approach, has been widely debunked and discredited. A series of letters have been sent to The Lancet, the Journal which published the Trial, the latest signed by almost two hundred scientific and medical organisations and prominent individuals, all calling for an independent reanalysis of the trial. It is perhaps an example of the arrogance of those who consider themselves to be part of a clique whose pedigree places it above such matters as truth and falsehood, right and wrong, that they have not felt obliged to respond.

And given our current state of knowledge about M.E., the only reason that a NICE Guideline committee split between those for and against GET can be said to represent ‘balance’ is because those who have lost the argument refuse to accept defeat.

Deep down somewhere, even the PACE team know that the data has been reassessed, the argument is over and they have lost. They know that an independent reassessment will come out against them, which is why they are making sure their friends will not allow it. Not only have they lost the argument, they have – in a metaphorical sense – thrown their toys out of the buggy and are sitting there sulking. But in such a way that isn’t obvious to those in the ruling clique who have never taken the time and trouble to understand about PACE.

The PACE apologists don’t engage with the facts any more. They make statements which appear to do so, yet they are simply repeating the same old tired phrases which lost the argument last time around. Michael Sharpe’s performances on Twitter have been a perfect example of this: making a statement here and there, cherry picking which tweets to engage with and which to ignore; not submitting any kind of joined up, reasoned argument, just giving a studied impression of what he hopes will seem like a reasonable man.

To talk about ‘balance’ in the NICE committee is going along with this charade of pretending the argument isn’t over. It gives the impression of representing both sides of a finely balanced discussion. But this isn’t how things are. To the extent that it is a balance, it is only between right and wrong, between truth and lies, between the proven and the groundless. That, surely, is no kind of balance at all.

   *     *     *

The patient community have made impressive efforts to make known their dissatisfaction with the proposed personnel for the guidelines committee. Among all the other many patient advocates, I was invited to take part and I can only apologise for my total lack of response. The reason for that will become clear very shortly. Obviously, I am coming late to the party on this and a lot of representations have already been made, but it is worth my mentioning a new initiative by M.E. Action, encouraging patients to send a Christmas card to NICE staff telling them why those who have championed the ideas and treatments that have harmed the community should not be writing the guideline that will influence treatment for decades to come. I shall certainly be participating in this and I encourage you to do the same.

So what have I been doing the last few months? I think the best way to answer that is to say ‘something else’.

One of the most wearing things about being an M.E, patient advocate (for want of a better word) is the need for constant repetition, of having to make the same valid points over and over again in the hope that someone will listen. This can get to you after a while, and in recent times I have tried to balance writing this blog with writing other things, just for the sake of my sanity,  which is why there have been fewer posts this year than previously.

One of the things I did was to go back to writing some children’s fantasy stories which I had previously put to one side due to the disinclination of British literary agents to have anything to do with them. Now I decided I would try self-publishing them, and so was happily surprised when a few months ago, by a serendipitous turn of events which I won’t go into right now, a small American publisher, Journey Fiction, offered me a contract for the books…

The title of the series, you may now have guessed, is The Vale of Strange and the first volume, The Shop on Peculiar Hill, was published on 1 December. Should you be interested, you can find out more about the books on Amazon or at www.grimlydarkwood.com  They’re best described as humorous adventure stories and are aimed at the age range 8 to 12 but I’m doing my best to convince adults that they will like them too. Indeed, I’m happy to say that most of the adults who’ve tried the first book  do seem to like it. The Shop on Peculiar Hill is available in both paperback and electronic form at Amazon and other online retailers. Just search for my pseudonym ‘Grimly Darkwood’ or follow these links: Amazon UK    Amazon.com US

So that’s why this post is entitled The Vale of Strange and why there’s a rather strange picture up at the head of it. I hope you will forgive me for writing about these books on this occasion – I won’t make a habit of hijacking the blog in this way. In any case, most of my writing and campaigning about M.E., the blog included, is going to have to be put on hold – or at least on go-slow – for the time being. There’s no way I can both do that and write and publish fiction, not and maintain the level of health – or more accurately, ill health – that I have at the moment. Yet fiction is something I’ve wanted to do all my life, so I don’t want to pass up on this new and unexpected opportunity l’ve been given.

I would like to be able to tell you that the book is about M.E., perhaps a metaphorical quest to slay an insidious dragon, but I’m afraid it isn’t, not ostensibly. Nevertheless, it’s a children’s fantasy story so it will never be a million miles away from the antics of those who believe that patients shown to be made demonstrably worse by exercise can exercise their way back to health. The story also involves a population being very misled by the authorities about a matter which could have a serious impact on their health and well being, so some people might reach the conclusion that it *is*  about ME  after all.

If you would like to take a look at the book to see if you agree, or indeed for any other reason, then of course I shall be be delighted. You can buy the book and read the reviews at the links I gave above. Or if you prefer to ‘try before you buy’, there are free sample chapters here. Do write and tell me what you think, and if you are able to leave a review on Amazon, then so much the better.

As for this blog, I’m hoping to do one final post here to round up my series on ‘medically unexplained symptoms’, one which makes an important connection I feel needs attention. After that, perhaps occasional posts will be possible. We shall see…

I’m pleased to observe that the ME community is more active and organised than ever before so I don’t feel that one more blogger will be missed all that much. Even so, I do feel guilty to leave others to shoulder the yoke of repetition that has started to drive me so crazy. I’m just glad there are those of you who are willing to take it on, including those who were doing it long before I arrived and will be doing it after I ‘m gone. Tom Kindlon is a name which springs to mind but there are many others, typing away day after day, week after week, matching the intransigent determination of those who have lied – and continue to lie – about M.E. with their own intransigent repetition of the truth.

It’s a hard slog, but I’m sure that truth will triumph in the end.

 

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Letter to Professor Watt of MRC

This letter from Professor Fiona Watt of the Medical Research Council in support of the PACE Trial appeared a few days ago in response to the Times article about the growing pressure on The Lancet concerning the trial:

CHRONIC FATIGUE

Sir, Further to your report “Call for review of ‘flawed’ ME research”(Aug 21), as funders of the Pace trial we reject the view that the scientific evidence provided by the trial for using cognitive behavioural theory and managed exercise in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as ME) was unsound. The Pace trial was funded following expert peer review, was overseen by an independent steering committee, and its published findings have also been independently peer-reviewed. Other research groups have drawn similar conclusions. Chronic fatigue syndrome/ME remains a priority for the Medical Research Council (MRC), and it is important that researchers are not discouraged from working on the disease because of concerns that they could be subject to the level of hostility that Pace researchers have experienced. Medical research can only flourish when there is mutual respect between all parties.

Professor Fiona Watt Executive chairwoman, Medical Research Council

There have been other responses from patients. Here is mine, which I decided to send directly to Prof Watt.

Maybe she will see it. Maybe she will read it. Maybe she will do as I ask! I’ve sent it anyhow. You don’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket…

Dear Professor Watt,

Like many patients with M.E. I was surprised and disappointed by your letter to The Times wholeheartedly supporting the PACE trial. There are so many misconceptions in the letter that it is clear that you have not investigated this matter yourself but have – apparently- assumed that what the PACE authors tell you about it is correct and what patients tell you is not. I can only assume that this is because they are doctors and we are merely patients.

Yet you say in your letter that ‘medical research can only flourish when there is mutual respect between all parties’. I would certainly not disagree with that. Please then show patients the respect of being open to the possibility that what we (and indeed many distinguished researchers and other informed parties) say about PACE may actually be correct.

I am not asking you to take us at our word, but please look into the matter yourself instead of simply believing what you are told by the PACE authors and their friends. It will not take you long. I have provided a few references at the end of this letter which you will find useful. For the sake of the patients you say you wish to respect, please take the trouble to do this.

Thank you,

Useful references:

Rethinking the Treatment of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – A Reanalysis and Evaluation of Findings from a Recent Major Trial of Graded Exercise and CBT by Wilshire et al. – Jan 2018 (A comprehensive re-evaluation of PACE following the release of data from the Freedom of Information Act Tribunal.)

Journal of Health Psychology Vol 22 No.9 Aug 2017 – A Special Issue on PACE. “On the basis of this Special Issue, readers can make up their own minds about the merits and demerits of the PACE Trial,” writes Editor David F Marks.

A letter to The Lancet signed by over a hundred scientists, clinicians, academics, MPs and other experts plus over sixty local, national, and international patient organisations, calling for an independent re-analysis of PACE and setting out the reasons why.

The August 2016 PACE Trial Freedom of Information Tribunal Judgement has useful information about so called hostility to PACE researchers, an unfounded allegation which your letter unfortunately perpetuates.

Two notes relating to this issue:

  • Allegations were made at the Tribunal by a representative of the PACE proponents that ME patients, described as ‘activists’ were ‘borderline sociopathic and psychopathic’ and posed ‘a serious threat of violence to trial participants and researchers’ but the Commissioner described these as ‘wild speculations’ which did the representative ‘no credit’ (see pages 22 and 36). PACE researcher Prof Chalder accepted that ‘there had been no threats made either to researchers or participants’ The Commissioner stated that the ‘assessment of activist behaviour was grossly exaggerated. The only actual evidence was that an individual at a seminar had heckled Prof Chalder.’ (see page 40)
  • Your letter also suggests that researchers might be ‘discouraged from working on the disease because of concerns that they could be subject to the level of hostility that PACE researchers have experienced’. The idea that researchers are being discouraged in this way is another often repeated misconception which seems to be intended to vilify patients. Working for the MRC, you will be fully aware of how little funding M.E. has received over the years. Nevertheless there is research going on worldwide, strongly supported by patients and often funded by them. (Many of these researchers are critical of PACE and have signed the letter to The Lancet requesting its independent reassessment – see above.) Patients do however object – in the form of letters such as this and other peaceful means – to the squandering of funds on poorly conducted research such as PACE, money which is desperately needed for high quality biomedical research into the condition.

Probing the Holes in MUS

This is the second in a new series of posts about medically unexplained symptoms (MUS). The first of these, A Morass of MUS, appeared last time. However, I first looked at medically unexplained symptoms over two years ago in a post called Medically Unexplained Assumptions. In this, I travelled all the way back to the nineteenth century (just like a character from Netflix) to take a look at the case of the unfortunate Mr Le Log, who suffered memory loss, paralysis and seizures after being knocked to the ground by a speeding carriage.

The accident was unfortunate of course but what made things worse for Le Log was that he had no external head injuries. He most likely had internal ones, but at that time medical science did not recognise the existence of such injuries as they didn’t have the technology to detect them. As far as the doctor who examined him was concerned, therefore, there couldn’t possibly be any physical reason for Le Log’s symptoms of memory loss etc. The doctor could only conclude that they were the result of ‘hysteria’.

In the many years since then, similar assumptions have been made about many other presentations of symptoms, such as those relating to epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinsons disease, to name but a few, yet subsequent advances in technology have revealed that these conditions too are really physical in nature and have nothing to do with ‘hysteria’ at all.

The habit of assuming that any condition which is not understood by doctors  must be a rooted in mental health continues to this day, however. It has been shown to be wrong over and over again, and you would have thought that gradually, over the years, it would have fallen into disuse. But no. The medical profession continue to insist that they already know everything there is to know about illness, so any set of symptoms they don’t understand can’t possibly be a ‘proper’ disease – this in spite of the fact that they really know they don’t know everything, and are happy enough to admit this in other contexts.

The word ‘hysterical’ is rarely used these days, but plenty of other names have come along to replace it in describing such conditions: medically unexplained symptoms (MUS), which we are using here, is one of them, as are the terms ‘functional‘ and ‘somatised’. ‘Functional’ is especially misleading, I think, as it sounds like it is describing a physical fault in a system. (You could almost think that doctors were deliberately setting out to mislead their patients…)

Far from falling into disuse, these terms seem to be gaining in popularity at the moment. As I mentioned last time, up to 45% of GP appointments and half of all new hospital visits are now considered to be due to MUS. This really is an extraordinarily large number, and new MUS services are being encouraged into existence to deal with it all. The IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) scheme, originally intended to address anxiety and depression, is now being extended to deal with MUS (and long term conditions). Nimnuan, Wessely, and Hotopf, authors of the paper “Medically Unexplained Symptoms -an epidemiological study in seven specialties” which seems to have been the source of the ‘50% of hospital visits’ figure, announce rather grandly: “It is now time to acknowledge that the management of medically unexplained symptoms is one of the important tasks facing the specialist in internal medicine – indeed, in some clinics, it constitutes the majority of the work.”

Is all this really true? Is the vast mountain of MUS that Wessely et al have brought to our attention real? Sir Simon Wessely’s presence amongst the authors of the ‘seven specialties’ paper was bound to increase my doubts about this, especially bearing in mind his favourable opinion of the calamitous PACE trial. So I was interested to take a look at how he and his colleagues arrived at their figures for the prevalence of MUS .

I found I had a number of concerns:

“Medically unexplained symptoms were defined as any current principal somatic complaint reported by patients for which no definite medical diagnosis could be found by physical examination and appropriate investigation… The physician’s opinion was determined by the final diagnosis stated in the clinical case notes. If the physicians gave a diagnosis of “functional,” or continued to defer the diagnosis because of no detected abnormality, we considered these as indicating that the symptoms were medically unexplained… Case notes were reviewed to ascertain the final diagnosis approx three months after the initial visit.”

So in other words, if the doctor hasn’t come up with an explanation for a symptom in three months, then it is officially “medically unexplained” as far as this research is concerned. The problem for me here is that, in my experience, most diagnoses take longer than three months to obtain, so this three month cut-off seems unreasonable and likely to exaggerate the extent of the MUS problem.

  • The researchers developed a ‘system review questionnaire’ for use in the study but I haven’t been able to find it online. They describe it as follows:

“It consists of 11 main symptoms, which correspond to 13 recognised functional somatic syndromes, with 25 additional symptoms, including somatic symptoms, sleep, and psychological complaints. A total of 27 individual somatic symptoms were enquired about.“

I don’t find that all that easy to interpret, so it’s a shame we don’t have a copy of the questionnaire. But the impression I get is that if a patient has at least one of those 27 individual somatic symptoms which has not been ‘explained’ by the doctor by the time the 3 months are up, then they will be categorised as having medically unexplained symptoms. In my opinion, however, it is a natural part of the human condition to have one or two aches and pains and other bodily malfunctions of unknown origin at any one time. So it seems to me that once again these figures will be inflated. (If you would like to take a look at this for yourself and see if you think I am representing it correctly, then please do so. The full paper is freely available online.)

  • As quoted above, the 11 “main symptoms“ correspond to “13 recognised functional somatic syndromes”. Not all of these are named in the paper but three of them are mentioned in the introduction:  IBS, fibromyalgia, and – you guessed it –  CFS. Well the World Health Organisation classes IBS as ‘a disease of the intestines’, and fibromyalgia as a ‘soft tissue disorder’. They have nothing to say about CFS but myalgic encephalomyelitis is a classed as a neurological condition of course and as the Department of Health apparently believes ME and CFS to be one and the same, a strong case could be made for CFS to be also classed as neurological. I can only presume that a patient presenting with the symptoms of any one of the ’13 recognised functional somatic syndromes’ mentioned would be categorised as ‘unexplained’ by the researchers. However, as the three ‘syndromes’ mentioned are in fact officially recognised as ‘somatic’ (ie physical) conditions, a case could be made that once again the number of patients with MUS are being inflated – and we haven’t even looked at the remaining so called ‘functional somatic syndromes’ yet. The chances are that some of those aren’t really ‘functional’ either. Is it reasonable of the government to recognise medical conditions as physical yet at the same time class them as MUS in the supporting statistics for a major initiative to expand services for such conditions? I don’t think it is.

So where does this leave us exactly? While this isn’t all as clear as I would like it to be, I feel there’s enough here to place a big question mark against these figures. If I was relying on them to support a substantial government initiative, I think I’d want to take a very good look at them first. Likewise the supporting figures for primary care. Has anyone done so? I wonder. They may well have simply relied on peer review to validate the research, but that didn’t work so well for PACE, did it?

While we’re on the subject of diagnosis: last time, I drew attention to some advice for GPs which seemed to suggest they should place undue focus on the mental health of patients presenting with physical symptoms in order not to miss any cases of MUS. If you’ve read the second of my original posts on MUS, ‘Unexplained, Misdiagnosed, Untreated‘, you’ll also know that MUS has been a substantial factor in the misdiagnosis of rare conditions, sometimes causing catastrophic delays in treatment. But there are also other concerns, most notably a gaping logistical gap which appears to lie at the very centre of the MUS strategy as it is described in the Guidelines for Commissioners (the very document which, supposedly, is supposed to kickstart the new range of services for MUS into action).

As I mentioned last time, MUS are described in these guidelines as: ‘bodily complaints for which adequate examination does not reveal sufficient explanatory structural or other specified pathology’. A similar definition was used by Wessely et al in their paper above. All this may seem reasonable enough at first glance, but if you think about it more carefully, you might start to wonder ‘how sufficient is ‘sufficient’ and ‘how adequate is ‘adequate’? As far as I can tell, the guidelines give no guidance on that. They do however warn against the danger of over-investigation. They say:

“Patients are often subjected to repeated diagnostic investigations, and unnecessary and costly referrals and interventions”

and

“Doctors can cause harm by pursuing inappropriate investigations in their efforts to discover the cause of symptoms. Such procedures can exacerbate anxiety. Over-investigation may cause unnecessary damage to healthy tissues and lead to over-treatment, including unknecessary surgery, with all its complications, and in extreme cases more invasive treatments such as urinary catheters and tube feeding, of various types. Doctors may also prescribe unnecessary medication that can lead to side effects, and addiction.”

Forgive me, but that last paragraph reads like a text book example of catastrophising, something I am led to believe is more typical of a MUS patient than a set of NHS guidelines. I suppose a doctor would explain it as follows: “I’m sorry Mr Smith but it’s really best if we don’t give you a gastroscopy to investigate your stomach pains or you’re very likely to end up in bed with several organs accidentally removed, being drip fed unnecessary medication. What would you like us to give you instead to help with your constant agonising pain: CBT or mindfulness?”

I’m not sure this is really striking a realistic balance between ‘adequate examination‘ and ‘over-investigation’. It’s more like freezing to death for fear of catching fire if you light a match.

The truth is that the more adequate the examination, the more likely it is to find sufficient pathology if it is present. But the guidelines stress again and again the need for less investigation. Is there not a danger of an enormous void opening up here, a void into which the physically ill may fall? Those whose pathology is overlooked by tests which turn out not to have been so adequate after all? Always assuming, of course, that they even managed to get a test. ‘Repeated tests’ seem to be especially frowned upon by the guidelines, so if you’ve been tested before, you may not get another chance. The impression given, rightly or wrongly, is that the NHS will no longer cater for patients who develop pathology for which they’ve previously been tested. Unless you want CBT of course, in which case your brand new local MUS clinic will be happy to help.

This is especially concerning in the light of the guidelines’ acceptance that ‘MUS may be caused by physiological disturbance, emotional problems or pathological conditions which have not yet been diagnosed’. (My italics.) For if that is indeed the case, there’s a problem, isn’t there? With all this desire to avoid investigation, how are these conditions which have not yet been diagnosed going to get diagnosed – especially once a patient has been judged to have MUS? I can find no answer to this important question in the guidelines. But it is a life-threatening question and surely one which requires an answer….

I’d like to complete this post with a brief overview of the current situation, as regards both MUS and IAPT. The underlying principles behind the original IAPT scheme seem to me to be praiseworthy: delivering therapies for mental health problems such as anxiety and depression which previously all too often went untreated. There are concerns, however, especially regarding the expansion of IAPT to include MUS and long term conditions. The official guide to this new ‘care pathway’, for instance, cites CFS as a MUS condition, repeating the error from the ‘seven specialties’ paper but this time in a government document; while IAPT as a whole is also under scrutiny following an audit by Michael J Scott which suggests that the therapies used (principally CBT) come nowhere near achieving the 50% curative rate which is claimed for them. This concern is covered in detail in the latest issue of the Journal of Health Psychology (ed David F Marks). 

As for MUS, if we stand back and look at the overall picture of that, is there even greater cause for concern? Not only must we have the same worries about the efficacy of the therapies, surely questions must be asked sooner or later about the vast numbers which are supposed to be affected by this phenomenon and the effect on the diagnosis of physical/somatic conditions if undue emphasis is placed on it.

Put in a single sentence, the question is this: do we have a situation where a massive new initiative is being rolled out to promote therapies with exaggerated efficacy for the purpose of combating an imaginary epidemic, at the same time encouraging doctors to overlook and under-investigate genuine pathologies?

Only asking…

 

A Morass of MUS

As you are probably aware, here in the UK, NICE are currently engaged in the lengthy process of revising their guidelines for ME/CFS. The current guidelines recommend the use of GET (graded exercise therapy) and associated CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), the latter being used in this case to persuade patients that GET is a good idea.

Patients have every right to be sceptical. Numerous patient surveys have shown that many report being made worse by GET. Many patients end up housebound or even bedbound as a result, sometimes permanently so. Research such as that by VanNess et al has provided evidence of why such exercise is harmful, while PACE, the most influential study purporting to support the use of GET, has been thoroughly debunked and discredited – most comprehensively by Wilshire et al. In the US, the recommendations for GET and CBT have been withdrawn in view of the latest information.

In view of all this, a disinterested bystander might be forgiven for assuming that withdrawal of support for CBT and GET will be close to a foregone conclusion when NICE eventually complete their review. Indeed, they might well agree with those patient groups who have asked NICE to remove the recommendation for these therapies from their guidelines at once before anyone else gets harmed.

As it happens, however, the latter request has not been successful and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen when the interminable review is finally completed in 2020 – though the smart punters would probably put their money on CBT and GET remaining in favour.

There’s a number of reasons for this.

  1. Though anyone who takes the trouble to look at the evidence will see that PACE has indeed been thoroughly debunked, the Trial’s authors have adopted the policy of pretending that no significant flaws have been uncovered and that everything will be fine if they keep on insisting they’ve done nothing wrong. Close to the heart of the British establishment as they are, this policy has served them pretty well so far and we can’t assume that NICE won’t be taken in too.
  2. If NICE withdraw their recommendation for CBT and GET, what therapies can they offer instead? There has been so little biomedical research in recent times – due in large part to the unhelpful influence of PACE itself – that no substantial advances in treatment seem likely to arrive in time for the completion of the review. So if NICE withdraw CBT and GET, they might leave doctors with nothing at all to offer – and doctors won’t like that.
  3. If CBT and GET are withdrawn, what will the poor old NHS CFS Clinics do? CBT and GET are their stock in trade. Without them, how could they survive? Will NICE want to trigger wholesale redundancies in the CFS industry? Probably not.

So the only sensible course of action from the point of view of patients is for NICE to withdraw their support for CBT and GET (preferably right away) but when you look at the self-interest of so many of the professionals involved, it’s a very different story.

On the other hand…

Taking a broader perspective, perhaps the closure of the CFS clinics wouldn’t be such a terrible blow for the pro-GET lobby after all. It may well be that they have Plan B in place already….

…Because whether by accident or design, the new MUS (medically unexplained symptoms) clinics which are being rolled out across the country in a major new initiative couldn’t have come at a better time for them. If NICE comes out against CBT and GET and the CFS clinics fail, then the MUS clinics will provide a natural place for their staff to go. It’ll be the same sort of work but with a much larger clientele. Up until now, they‘ve only had people with CFS to work on. Now the sky will be the limit.

MUS is a far more powerful dustbin diagnosis than CFS ever was. Even Esther Crawley couldn’t come up with figures to claim that people with CFS represent more than 2% of the population. With MUS, on the other hand, you are talking about a substantial proportion of the people who come through a doctor’s door.

According to the figures in ‘The Guidelines for Commissioners of Services for Patients with MUS (Feb 2017)’, up to 20% of people who go to see their GP really have MUS, while for secondary care, the proportion ranges from 39% for dentistry up to a staggering 66% for top-scoring gynaecology. Two things are especially worthy of notice here:

  1. Should it surprise us that gynaecology produced the highest proportion of patients believed to have MUS? (Not really. Women have suffered such prejudice for centuries of course. The ‘high attack rate in females compared with males’ among patients in the Royal Free outbreak was cited by Beard and McEvedy as part of their argument for labelling ME as ‘mass hysteria’ back in 1970 for instance ) and
  2. Those extraordinary figures for secondary care come from a 2001 study by – who would have guessed it? – S Wessely et al.

Before I go on, I should explain what MUS is in case you don’t know. The acronym stands for ‘medically unexplained symptoms’ which according to ‘The Guidelines for Commissioners of Services for Patients with MUS’ can be described as ‘bodily complaints for which adequate examination does not reveal sufficient explanatory structural or other specified pathology’. Or to put it another way, they are symptoms which don’t have an obvious physical explanation. Doctors don’t understand them and they don’t show up in tests. For people with ME, this will already sound eerily familiar.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ leaflet on MUS explains as follows:

‘When something in our body doesn’t feel right, there usually is a bodily or ‘physical’ cause –  stomach problems may be due to an infection, or palpitations may be due to a heart problem.

 ‘What if there is no physical explanation for your physical symptoms?  We can often understand and explain such symptoms when we look at how our thoughts, feelings and stresses can affect our bodies.

 ‘But – to say that a bodily symptom is not just physical is not the same as saying they are all in the mind. Medically unexplained symptoms aren’t “all in the mind”, but neither are they all in the body.  To understand them we have to think about how the mind and the body work together.’

But in spite of this ‘a bit in the mind and a bit in the body’ description, the suggested therapies turn out to be all psychological in nature: talking therapies and anti-depressants. Oh yes, and graded exercise. You may not find this surprising.

I first looked at MUS in my post ‘Medically Unexplained Assumptions’ a couple of years ago. You may find that post of interest. Back then, I was interested in delving into the origins of the medical profession’s attitude to ME. Little did I realise that MUS was about to come back into fashion on such an extraordinary scale.

Looking at the various documents about MUS that I have been collecting over recent months, I am struck by what a massive thing it appears to be. I have already written this post then scrapped it and started again several times over. I am anxious not to exaggerate or be alarmist yet it seems to me that unless I appear to do so, I am understating the challenge which MUS presents.

Those figures I quoted above from Wessely’s study give an idea of the extraordinary number of patients which the medical authorities seem to believe are affected by this mysterious entity MUS, yet when I turn to the NHS Choices website, I see they’re going even higher. They’re attributing ‘up to 45% of GP appointments and half of all new hospital visits’ to MUS. If the trend goes on, there will soon be more people with MUS than with what I shall call (for the want of anything better) ‘accredited illnesses’.

How do the authorities intend to deal with this burgeoning problem?

The ‘Guidelines for Commissioners’ booklet proposes a hospital MUS service as part of the solution. Apparently this will:

 ‘redirect patients from the emergency department, expedite discharges from medical and surgical wards, and offer effective interventions. These activities should help avoid unnecessary medical investigations and interventions, reduce length of hospital stays, and prevent frequent referrals and readmissions. Services must include psychological therapists who would provide evidence-based MUS interventions in a timely manner. The therapists would be sufficiently familiar with physical healthcare to be credible to patients – many of whom may not accept a psychological component to their physical symptoms and therefore the need for psychological therapy.’

So, in the future, it seems that your local hospital MUS service will be standing by at all times to whisk you away from the parts of the hospital where you might get medical assistance and take you somewhere nice and quiet where you can focus on the important business of working out which psychological therapy you need.  I’m afraid I do not find this reassuring.

Imagine a crowded A&E department on a Saturday night. Imagine the pressure to cut down waiting times and the shortage of hospital beds. The pressure on staff to dismiss a quota of patients as MUS and bundle them into a side room for CBT is going to be enormous. It’s certainly an easier option than finding something physically wrong and fixing them And indeed, will there be a fine to pay if they don’t don’t come up with the specified quota of MUS patients for the evening? A specified quota which, to take the figure from NHS Choices, would be no less than fifty per cent.

And what are we supposed to make of this bit: ‘the therapists would be sufficiently familiar with physical healthcare to be credible to patients’? Am I  wrong in getting the impression here that these psychotherapists are going to pretend to be doctors or something? What are they going to do: hang stethoscopes round their necks? Isn’t that illegal? At the very least, this seems to me to be an example of a national NHS document deliberately advising health professionals to mislead patients. Or am I being unfair?

Now, I can imagine why doctors might want to bear this MUS thing in mind for a small minority of their patients, but the guidelines seem to suggest it should be a primary consideration all the time. Look at this excerpt from another piece of advice for doctors, this time aimed at primary care. The Treatment of Medically Unexplained Symptoms in Primary Care – A Review of the Literature from ‘Mental Health in Family Medicine’ (2010) advises:

‘A quick and easy method for carrying out a mental state examination in primary care is the Look, Listen and Test schema. This schema utilises the observation and communication skills already possessed by GPs to enable the GP to develop a formulation by observing the patient’s behaviour and activities from the moment they enter the consultation room, by listening to and evaluating the content of the speech to identify underlying themes of depression, anxiety or paranoia, and by encouraging GPs to test severity by using questionnaires developed to evaluate mood and anxiety disorders. Once depression has been diagnosed, the GP should prescribe the standard dose of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) available in their geographical area of practice.’

The reason for this assessment of mental health, of course, is that many  people with MUS are said to suffer with depression or anxiety. If the doctor can identify these problems, therefore, you’re well on your way to a MUS diagnosis. So while you’re talking about the abdominal pain you’re getting, your doctor is apparently sitting there trying to decide if you’re paranoid.

I can’t help wondering if it is really in the patient’s best interests to have the doctor’s attention deflected in this way? If a patient is  suffering say, in this case, abdominal pain, is it not sensible to focus on the abdomen, at least to start with?  Is there not  a danger that in their zeal to identify the 45% of their patients who have MUS, doctors may overlook some genuine physical illness?

I have other concerns about diagnosis- and about MUS in general – but I’ll save them till next time, I think. There’s plenty to go at I’m afraid. But for now I’d like to close this post by touching on an aspect of MUS which particularly concerns me.

The Guidelines for Commissioners identifies not only chronic fatigue syndrome but also myalgic encephalomyelitis as MUS conditions and patient advocates have quite rightly raised concerns about this, pointing out that ME has been recognised by the World Health Organisation as a neurological condition for a great many years. While I agree that this is important, I wonder if it is also overlooking the most important threat from MUS?

In the future, will it matter whether ME is designated MUS or not?  Will it matter whether NICE recommend CBT and GET for ME or not? As more is discovered about ME and the imposition of psychological therapies is made more difficult by the growing weight of evidence against them, will the diagnosis ME – and even CFS – become too troublesome for the powers that be to use any more? Far better, perhaps, from their point of view, to shift new patients off into the vague morass of the ‘MUS’ label, where CBT, GET, and other psychological therapies can be used without fear of interference from those who insist on researching the truth of our condition.

 

 

 

How Many Times Must a Story Be Told…?

Sorry I’ve not been blogging recently. I put the blog to one side to concentrate on another project but I didn’t realise how long it would take. Needing to take breaks every five minutes to replenish my brain when I’m writing doesn’t make for speedy progress. Today, however, it has been May 12, ME Awareness Day, and I managed to share a link to Robert Saunders’ excellent ME-related version of Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ on my (mainly non-ME specific) Facebook page. I read what I’d written to introduce the piece again just now and decided it was worth sharing it here too. If you’re involved in the ME world in some way, you’ve probably come across Robert’s splendid video already, but if not then do please take five minutes to listen – and maybe to share it with others.

Here (for a change) is the non-Facebook version of Robert’s introduction to the video.

Even if you think you know something about ME, some of the quotes used in the video may surprise you:

‘I split my clinical time between ME/CFS and HIV and I can tell you if I had to choose between the two illnesses, I’d rather have HIV.’ – Dr Nancy Klimas, Director, Institute of Neuro Immune Medicine, NSU.

‘People with ME are more disabled and have a lower quality of life than people with most other chronic illnesses including heart disease and multiple sclerosis.’

‘When the full details of the PACE Trial become known, it will be considered one of the biggest medical scandals if the 21st century.’ Carole Monaghan, UK MP

The PACE Trial spent £5m of UK taxpayers’ money and purported to illustrate the effectiveness of graded exercise therapy for ME. However, it was eventually discovered to be so full of flaws that it is now being taught in some university courses as an example of how not to do research. In spite of this, PACE is still highly influential worldwide, including here in the UK, its researchers being so embedded in the higher echelons of the medical establishment that mere facts seem to do nothing to damage their ‘credibility’ in the eyes of their peers.

Time and again, the faults and subterfuge which lie behind PACE have been laid bare, first by patients – many working from their sick beds – and more recently by commentators such as Dr David Tuller who have taken the trouble to look at the evidence and understand that the trial, and the biopsychosocial theory which underlies it, need to be exposed as the sham that they are. Time and again, the argument is won, and the PACE researchers are left mumbling the same excuses which didn’t hold water the last time around, yet to change the consensus view of the illness appears to take decades rather than years. Press coverage is slowly improving but the PACE researchers have a powerful lobbying group, the Science Media Centre, on their side, and though journalists are often well meaning, their idea of balance seems to be to present both sides of the argument, irrespective of where the truth may lie. The equivalent of most articles about ME would be a feature on the shape of the planet which gave equal time and weight to the views of the Flat Earth Society.

As the song puts it:

How many times must an idea fail

Before it is seen to be flawed?

How many flaws can a Trial embrace

Before it is seen as a fraud?

So the process of exposing the truth is an arduous one and of course people with ME have little energy to spare. We fight the illness as best we can but it is a cruel truth that we also have to fight an intransigent medical establishment. Thank goodness for those few healthy people who are willing to help us.

The slow process of getting to the truth has to go on. Graded exercise as promoted by PACE is very dangerous for people with ME. It can – and does – leave patients bedbound, sometimes permanently so. Not only that but the persistent presence of the biopsychosocial lobby means that most research money, especially here in the UK, goes into various ‘rehabilitation’ research programs such as PACE rather than into much needed biomedical research.

Of the 14 million people worldwide estimated to have ME, about 25% are housebound or bedbound, many as a result of graded exercise programs. Many of these severely affected can’t tolerate light so they spend their lives in darkened rooms. Some are not even well enough to talk to those close to them, so they Iive lives of total isolation.

The photos in the video illustrate the worlds of a solitary room in which many such people must live. When the song talks of people screaming in the dark then, it is not exaggeration – except that in reality the scream will most likely be a silent one.

Thanks for listening and reading. Please help by sharing this. Thanks, too, to Robert Saunders and all involved in making this powerful video.

How many times must a story be told

Before you will see what is true?

Further reading:

David Tuller’s initial analysis of PACE. Just reading the summary gives you a good understanding of the scale of the ‘errors’ involved:

Out of the Blue: an account of what it can be like to go down with ME – and a few useful links (from the Spoonseeker blog):

 

Feedback to Dr Hoenderkamp

First, a brief word of apology: I hadn’t realised what a difficult process it would be to embed a load of tweets into this blog. WordPress protested in various ways at this indignity but I thought I had overcome them. The post looks fine on our desktop PC and my smartphone. So far so good. I hope it’s the same for you. But then I discovered that if I follow a link from a tweet onto a tablet, a whole load of duplicate tweets which I had battled hard to suppress suddenly appear out of nowhere. If this happens to you, please press or click or whatever it is these days on the title of the blog. ie Spoonseekerdotcom That should make it ok. If you then want to leave a comment – or look at the comments – press or click on the title of this particular post, ‘Feedback to Dr H’. You should then have access to the comments without the duplicate tweets returning (I hope!) If you get any other problems with the post, please let me know and I’ll try to help if I’m up to it. Grr. I’m not going to try a post like this again in a hurry – and please don’t ask about the PEM.

Tweeting this quote, which happened to catch my attention on Facebook, recently provoked a flurry of activity on my Twitter feed when the medical writer and broadcaster Dr Renee Hoenderkamp took exception to it as follows:

It was not my intention – or, I think, that of the person who made the remark on Facebook – to criticise all GPs, and it does not seem to me now, in the cold light of day, that anyone carefully reading my tweet should get that impression. I argued as follows:

Dr Hoenderkamp retorted:

And so on:

Patient Advocate Dr Claudia Gillberg also contested Dr Hoenderkamp’s interpretation of the original tweet:

If you are reading this, Dr Hoenderkamp (and I shall be inviting you to take a look) I hope you will agree that a pattern is emerging here: that by and large, to judge by these tweets, people with ME/CFS do not consider their GPs (or other GPs they have consulted) to be well informed about the condition. The tweets that came flowing in that afternoon told between them a very consistent story. There are many more of them below. These were just the tweets which came in from the ME patients who happened to be on Twitter that afternoon. Had I put out further tweets to ask for more, I think we could soon have got into triple figures and beyond. Even the tiny minority of patients who eventually managed to find an informed doctor recount how many others they tried before they ‘struck lucky’.

Of course, this only amounts to anecdotal evidence, but the results seem to me to be too consistent to ignore. What is more, I believe a poll among GPs would give a similar result. Here, tweeted by Joan McParland, are some comments from a questionnaire circulated among medical students after viewing the recent film ‘Unrest’ about ME. It is clear that they were surprised by how little they found they knew about the condition and baffled why this should be the case when so many people are so fundamentally affected.

NI students 1
NI students 2

It is good that Dr Hoenderkamp, unlike these students, feels she has been trained in ME but many patients tweeted to register their concern about what she might have been taught. Here are some of their comments on this issue:

A good way to find out more about the reasons why the PACE Trial (which claimed to provide evidence for the use of CBT and GET for ME/CFS) is now widely judged to have been discredited is to read Trial by Error, a detailed expose of the trial by pubic health lecturer and journalist Dr David Tuller. The first installment (of many) can be found here, though simply reading the summary will go a great way towards explaining why it has led to over a hundred eminent scientists and researchers writing an open letter to The Lancet calling for an independant review of the study and why CBT and GET are no longer the recommended treatments for ME/CFS in the USA.

The Journal of Heath Psychology special issue on the PACE Trial is also well worth a read and is available as a free download.

Moving on from PACE, the film Unrest, which has already been mentioned, is a powerful window into the world of severe ME, a chance to connect with some of those 25% of patients most severely affected, most of whom are long term bedbound, spending their lives confined to a single room and usually with little or no medical help. I have been drawing attention to the fact that doctors don’t understand ME but their understanding of severe ME is unfortunately so much worse. This must be the only condition where the sicker you get, the less attention you get from doctors. Most of them have absolutely no idea how severe the illness can become and no idea what to do about it if they see it. Again, I am not getting at doctors here. The problem is most of them aren’t taught about it so what can they do?

Unrest mainly skirts clear of PACE and other such controversy but it does not shirk away from sharing the raw experience of the illness. It has won numerous awards and can be viewed on Netflix.

Also recommended above are the purple booklet from the ME Association, which is a guide to the latest ME/CFS research written for doctors, and researcher Prof Jose Montoya’s question and answer session on ME, which appears in Paul Watton’s tweet above. There are many more such sources of information which could be mentioned but these few which I and others have suggested are a useful introduction to understanding the true nature of the condition, an essential antidote to the misinformation about ME/CFS which is all too abundant.

There is lots of opportunity for informed doctors to spread the word about the reality of ME/CFS. In his tweet above, Paul suggested you should do a video blog about it. A great time to do this would be in May/June when most of the eminent biophysical ME researchers come to Britain for the annual Invest in ME conference. I am sure they will be eager to talk about their latest research and ME in general.

Before returning to the many tweets of 27th January, here’s a particularly powerful – and upsetting – one from ‘motherofaliens’ which came in only the other day. Dr Keith Geraghty’s tweet, which led to it, is also very relevant of course:

Sadly – and shamefully – children are amongst those with ME who suffer most from the attitude of doctors. At least one prominent paediatrician does not recognise the existence of severe ME in children. Instead, the parents are blamed for the child’s condition and all too often are threatened with court proceedings. Only the efforts of Jane Colby of Tymes Trust and the paediatrician Dr Nigel Speight prevent such children being taken into care. Tymes Trust have dealt with over 150 such cases already and the problem seems to be escalating.

If you have read this far, Dr Hoenderkamp, thank you for doing so, and perhaps you are starting to understand the reasons for our concern. I shall end with some more tweets received in response to yours of 27th January. I hope I have included enough to give you an idea of the numbers who have had a similar experience. There were more tweets I could have included but embedding them in my blog is proving to be an arduous business, and I too have ME..

And finally, here is Dr Carolyn Wilshire, responding to Dr Hoenderkamp’s original tweet:

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

In the previous post about the NICE Guidelines revision, it was reported that Prof Mark Baker of NICE had raised the issue of the right of patients to refuse treatment, in this case with CBT and GET in mind. Steve, who frequently contributes to this blog, left the following response in the comments, pointing out that our system does not in reality allow patients this choice. I think it is – unfortunately – spot on, so I’m giving it a post of its own by airing it again here.

Over to Steve:

It is being rather naïve or even ‘economical with the truth’ to say that patients are at liberty to decline offers of CBT/GET (or any other treatment). In reality, you are being made an offer you *can’t* refuse, whether this is theoretically allowed or not.

The least that will happen is that your notes will be marked that you are uncooperative and ‘refused’ treatment. By this simple method, every NHS person you meet thereafter is likely to be wary of you, or even downright prejudiced against you, and you will go to the back of the queue for everything you ask for, and any time you turn up at A&E.

Furthermore, even if you say you will go along with the treatment even though you do not hold out much hope that it is of any use, you can then be listed as ‘treatment resistant’, by which ploy the ‘therapists’ and their ‘treatment’ are absolved of responsibility when you fail to improve.

Another favourite patient dissing habit is to say that you ‘deny’ having such and such a symptom, rather than that you don’t have it: anything to make the patient look bad.

The patient really cannot win, any more than they could going up against the Mafia: You cannot refuse.

(Recently, I tried to endure yet another gastroscopy without anaesthetic. I’ve managed this several times before, but this time I could not stop my stomach flinching against the scope in a way that was likely to be doing damage, so I had to signal them to stop. This was logged as a refusal, despite me having been told to do this if there was a problem, at the start of the procedure.)

In the worst case scenario – if your reputation is particularly bad, from trying too hard to get help to get better – any hint of a ‘refusal’ can be used as a pretext for having you sectioned in order to make you take the ‘treatment’. This actually happened to me even though I had previously organised, on my own instigation, CBT with a Kings’ therapist, but my local PCT had refused to fund it! I had also organised a bed at the then Queens, Romford, inpatient unit, but the PCT had refused to fund that either. After over three years wasted in the local psychiatric services, I was thrown out (though I knew I was too ill), with the advice that I should try the unit at Romford – which had closed down two years before, for lack of patients, due to PCTs not referring out of area! You could not make this stuff up. :/

So: while, in the ideal world, patients may, without prejudice, exercise a right to refuse, in *this* world. they will be scapegoated for life, and, quite possibly, even worse.

Steve has subsequently shared a bit more with me about his experience as a (wrongly diagnosed) patient in the mental health system:

Another point I didn’t make about the right to refuse, was what happens once you are admitted to a mental health facility: Everyone is supposed to have a ‘care plan’ that they have to agree to follow, but these are more like confessions they try to trick you into signing, than anything designed to help the patient.
 You are supposed to come up with compromise plans of things you can do and things you can’t, but, if you say you can’t do something, they just treat it as non-cooperation, no matter how clearly you explain the reason. Most of the time, in my case, it was because they did not agree that my physical illness was real, so, if I said I couldn’t hoover because it left me gasping for breath, I was refusing treatment — even if I’d been doing it all the time I could get breath.
These ‘care plans’ also get personal about what ‘I agree to do‎.’ They are like what we used to have to do in detentions at school when given ‘lines’ to write as punishment. In my case they stated that I was a hypochondriac, every time. And every time, I wrote on the form that I could not sign because I was not a hypochondriac and signing a false confession would make a liar out of me. Nevertheless, the forms still went forward as ‘evidence’ of my ‘treatment resistance’ and ‘non-cooperation’.
Even if I pushed myself to do an exercise program that I worked out for myself: when I got so far, and then, inevitably, came the crash, all my progress and ‘cooperation’ up to that point, was as nothing, and I was‎ ‘resisting treatment’ all along.
You really can’t win if you are physically ill in a mental unit. Whether you try to cooperate or not, if you are physically ill, you will always end up put down as a trouble-maker when you can’t do the physical things that the actually mentally ill people around you can do.
Your reputation precedes you wherever you go, and as soon as nurses and other staff look at your notes, you are likely to be greeted with a scowl, unless you are very clearly in serious trouble that they can see you aren’t faking or imagining.
Steve goes on to say that things have improved since he got a better GP, which goes to show how important your GP’s attitude can be. The expertise (or otherwise) of GPs concerning ME has been the subject of much of my Twitter feed recently. I may continue that discussion in the next post here…