Consultation – New NICE Guidelines on Multimorbidity

NICE have recently issued draft guidelines relating to multimorbidity, the not entirely appealing way in which doctors refer to the issue of patients having more than one health condition. There is a consultation period which still has a few days to run – the deadline is 12 May at 5pm. Comments from individuals as well as organisations are welcome, and I finally got round to sending in a few thoughts of my own (as a patient who has ME and also other conditions). I think it is good that NICE  have recognised the need to deal with this subject and they have focussed on the important issues of treatment interactions and coordination of care, but there are other issues they haven’t addressed. Much of what I have to say relates to matters I’ve raised in previous blogs, not least the tendency of doctors to assume that complex sets of symptoms are likely to be somatised/psychogenic. Here’s the feedback I submitted:

I don’t feel that the interaction of multiple health conditions has been given due weight in these guidelines. Obviously treatment interactions are important and it is good to see this issue thoroughly addressed in the guidelines. As a patient with multimorbidities, however, I find that little consideration is given to the interactions of the health conditions themselves and the associated effect on symptoms. I have spoken to other patients with multimorbidities and they have had the same experience. If the patient raises the subject of a symptom which is not normally associated with condition A, there is a tendency for the specialist consultant just to say ‘oh, that’s probably due to condition B’ and show no further interest. Meanwhile GPs are so overloaded that they tend to refer any complex issues back to the consultants, so they don’t get addressed. The problem of interpreting multiple symptoms also leads to delays in diagnosis and to misdiagnosis.

Another important and associated issue which is not addressed in these guidelines is the inclination of many doctors to leap to the conclusion that patients who have multiple symptoms (which do not fit the clinical picture of a specific pathology) must therefore have a somatised condition. I refer you to this NHS web page as an example of this unfortunate perspective which I fear is prevalent. As you will see, the advice given on this official NHS site is to keep such patients away from other doctors, to persuade them to dismiss any new symptoms as also somatic, and to develop a ‘therapeutic alliance’ with a close relative to enforce the doctor’s perspective. This imposition of the (often erroneous) doctor’s perspective upon the patient (often enlisting close relatives to overrule the patient) seems to be the antithesis of NICE’s declared intention (as described on Prof Haslam’s blog) of putting patients ‘in the driving seat’. It leads to misdiagnosis and/or late diagnosis of multi morbidities and also of rare diseases as described in the recent Rare Disease UK report. I believe that this issue needs to be urgently addressed, not least because it also leads to the misallocation of valuable mental health resources.

Make Sure We Speak

After a difficult few weeks in the world of ME advocacy, it’s been really heartening to see the new critique of the PACE trial and accompanying editorial on the Sense About Science USA/ American Statistical Association website. After 7000 words of searing analysis, Rebecca Goldin concludes that the flaws in the study design “were enough to doom its results from the start”, while Trevor Butterworth’s editorial pronounces “a terminal prognosis” on the study. As far as patients are concerned, this demise cannot come too soon – and it remains to be seen if the British media, who have uncritically lauded the study on so many occasions, will consider this latest development to be worth reporting.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging for patients to receive such clear validation of what we have been saying for so long from such a reliable source. It has to be another important step in the right direction.

Trevor Butterworth writes: “David Tuller may not get a Pulitzer Prize for investigating PACE trial on a blog; but his service to—and we do not exaggerate—millions of sufferers around the world make it hard for us to think of another work of journalism so deserving of commendation.” Patients – including those who produced the initial critiques which first attracted Tuller to the issue – will heartily agree with that analysis, likewise with Butterworth’s acknowledgement of the important contribution of Julie Rehmeyer in drawing attention to the flaws of the trial. Let us hope their work pays off very soon and the study is deservedly retracted. Lead PACE investigator Peter White still has his finger in the dam but sweat is breaking out on his forehead. He must be wondering how much longer he can hold back the torrent of truth. Continue reading “Make Sure We Speak”

Keep Watching

‘Somatoform disorders’ have reared their heads in the ME-related news recently. First there was the announcement that one of the control groups for the upcoming and eagerly anticipated US National Institutes of Health (NIH) study of post-infectious CFS would be people with ‘functional movement disorder’, a strange choice which has made a lot of ME patients feel uneasy. The NIH explained: “Functional Movement Disorder was chosen to contrast post-infectious ME/CFS patients with a very well-studied group of patients with clear psychological illness with neurological presentation.”

But why not compare us with, say, AIDS or MS patients, people have asked? Why choose these ‘functional’ patients? It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the NIH may be secretly looking for similarities rather than contrasts between people with ME/CFS  and those with this so-called ‘functional’ disorder. And if such similarities are found, what then?

There is, after all, no proof that any condition is ‘functional’ or ‘somatoform’ or ‘psychogenic’ or whatever you want to call it – as Doctor Speedy explains here. These diagnoses are based entirely on the opinion – and in many cases, as we shall see, the presumption – of the doctor. When it comes to such so-called ‘psychogenic’ conditions, otherwise known as ‘medically unexplained symptoms’, evidence-based medicine seems to go out of the window.

So these poor people with movement disorders may have conditions which are no more ‘psychogenic’ than ME is, yet according to the NIH they have ‘clear psychological illness’. So if we have similarities with such patients, what does that mean for us in the eyes of the NIH?

Perhaps I am being unduly suspicious here. There is plenty that seems to be good about the NIH study. It is large scale, it is studying post-infectious CFS (i.e. patients whose CFS started with an infection) and there is going to be a particular focus on the cardinal symptom of post exertional malaise. Continue reading “Keep Watching”

Unexplained, Misdiagnosed, Untreated

In my previous post I discussed what seems to have been a grand tradition in medicine, dating back to at least the 19th century, of assuming that any set of symptoms which is not understood or does not fit the template of an acknowledged illness must be psychological in origin. This seems to be based on the premise that everything physical is fully understood by doctors. So if a set of symptoms are ‘medically unexplained’ they can only be the result of some kind of faulty thinking on the part of the patient.

If this kind of logic had been left behind in Victorian times, it might have been thought to be quaint and perhaps even amusing. But the fact that it seems to not only survive but positively flourish in the present day is beyond a joke.

For the fact is that not everything physical is by any means understood. It never has been and it most probably never will be. Medicine is constantly evolving. More is being learned all the time. This is a good thing. So conditions that were previously dismissed as psychological in origin, such as epilepsy, Parkinsons, multiple sclerosis, even stomach ulcers for goodness’ sake, have gradually been understood to have a physical basis. And new advances in genomics and computer simulation – to name but two evolving fields – will no doubt lead to further such progress.

So if you ask yourself “are all physical illnesses fully understood even today?” you should only have to think for a moment to answer “no – of course not”.

So why is the medical profession still acting as if they are? Why are patients with symptoms that aren’t understood still automatically passed on to psychiatrists?

As I wrote that earlier post, it seemed to me that people with ME/CFS, dismissed as we so often are (in spite of evidence to the contrary) as people who are out of condition due to an irrational fear of exercise, have become the unwilling recipients of this grand tradition of blaming the patient. I was aware that others are dismissed in the same way of course: those with fibromyalgia and Gulf War Syndrome for instance. And I’m sure I’d have thought of a lot more if I’d put my mind to it, which – to be honest – I didn’t. I’m afraid most of us who are chronically ill are guilty, to some extent, of knowing a lot more about our own illness than we do about other people’s. So it wasn’t until I read the comments which people kindly left on the previous post and followed up a few leads they gave me that I realized the full extent to which the ‘medically unexplained symptoms’ (MUS) industry is flourishing in the present day. It seems that there is not so much a niggling problem with these ‘imaginary illnesses’ as a veritable plague of them. If you believe what some health professionals say – and I shall share what is said in a moment – there are more ‘imaginary illnesses’ than there are real ones. Continue reading “Unexplained, Misdiagnosed, Untreated”

Medically Unexplained Assumptions

Jean Martin Charcot was a pathfinding 19th century neurologist with a particular genius for anatomical dissection and postmortem diagnosis, but he may be best known today for his work on ‘hysteria’. In his book Freud, Richard Webster describes Charcot’s ‘classic case of neurotic hysteria’, in which a man named Le Log—–  who suffered memory loss, paralysis and seizures after being knocked to the ground by a speeding carriage, was deemed by Charcot to be suffering psychological trauma from the accident. As Webster suggests in his book, such a patient today would be recognized as having ‘a case of closed head injury complicated by late epilepsy and raised intracranial pressure’. But the concept of internal head injuries was not understood at the time, so because Le Log—– had no visible signs of injury, Charcot assumed that the symptoms must be psychological. The poor man was misdiagnosed with ‘neurotic hysteria’ and subjected to psychological therapy,  which won’t have done very much to cure his concussion.

Charcot did not invent the concept of ‘hysteria’ but his interest popularized its use and over the years it was applied to epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons disease, cerebral tumours, and a great many other conditions which were not at the time recognized as the physical problems they were later acknowledged to be.

The diagnosis ‘hysteria’ is not in use today but the medical profession’s habit of labeling any patient with symptoms that don’t fit the pattern of a currently recognized pathology as ‘psychologically ill’ remains as prevalent as ever. These days, they use terms like ‘somatization’, ‘conversion disorder’, and ‘medically unexplained symptoms’ but the concept remains the same. Any set of symptoms which aren’t in the medical textbooks is assumed to be ‘all in the head’. Continue reading “Medically Unexplained Assumptions”