A (Second) Letter to Dr Phil Hammond

Dear Dr Hammond – I was very pleased to hear about your vision for the way ahead regarding CFS on your 25 October BBC Radio Bristol show with Jennifer Brea (available on listen again at 2-21)

You said: “I remember when HIV first hit in the 80s in the UK … it was the patients themselves who learnt all the research and became very assertive and demanded the best care… I see that same movement happening with chronic fatigue. We need to unite people across the globe and use their wisdom and experience to get better research and that’s the route to an optimistic future, I think.”
I very much agree that this is the way ahead. We patients are doing our best to move things along this path. Unfortunately “becoming assertive” in the way that has been so successful for HIV campaigners is being interpreted by some health professionals as ‘harassment’. I’m glad you do not share this view. We are not trying to be difficult for the sake of it. All we are trying to do is to help uncover the truth about this illness which devastates so many patients’ lives.
With this in mind, I wonder if you have the time to answer a few questions which arose from your interview with Jennifer Brea. You were kind enough to respond when I wrote to you about a year ago and any response you can make again now would be very much appreciated.
1) You mentioned to Jennifer that some of your young patients improve when they have graded exercise therapy at your clinic. When you responded to me last year, however, you said that ‘the mainstay of treatment ( at the clinic) is activity management’. Which of these do you actually use at the clinic? Or is it both?
2) You were also telling Jennifer that when you do graded exercise therapy, you cut back on the amount your patients are doing. I wonder if your approach is the same as that described in the Magenta protocol, where patients start on a baseline level which is the same as the median amount which is currently being achieved each week. The total level therefore remains the same but there is more consistency in the amount of exercise day to day. Once this baseline level has been achieved every day for 1 to 2 weeks, then according to Magenta, participants are advised to increase exercise by 10 to 20% a week. This means that any cutback in exercise is not substantial (really more a smoothing out than an actual reduction) and does not seem to last very long. Is this indeed what you do in the clinic? In which case, the overall emphasis seems really to be more about increasing the level of exercise rather than cutting back. Or do you do things another way? If so, why do you not use the same regime as Magenta?
3) Jennifer remarked that the regime in your clinic as you described it to her seemed very like pacing, but the Magenta advice to increase by 10 to 20% a week seems much less flexible than that. Even if the increase is not rigidly imposed, the therapist – and inevitably the patient – will feel under pressure to deliver it. The most crucial issue is: what happens if symptoms start getting worse? Are patients encouraged to cut back on exercise or to carry on regardless? The Magenta protocol doesn’t seem to say what the advice will be but the PACE protocol is clearly in favour of carrying on as far as possible in spite of worsening symptoms. Is this the advice given in your clinic I wonder? If so, then it certainly isn’t like pacing. And if otherwise, what is the advice given?
I’m sorry if these questions seem fussy and pedantic but it seems to me that a lot of the problem in understanding CFS is that so many factors are not precisely defined. From a short conversation, it can seem like a graded exercise program is very similar to pacing but the devil is in the detail. Similarly, so many researchers have made the mistake of assuming that patients diagnosed with different diagnostic criteria all have the same condition.
As you said in the interview: “we’ve noticed there are some kids who do improve when they have graded exercise therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy – and some who don’t, which suggests… either we’re dealing with different conditions or chronic fatigue syndrome is a variety of different things.” As Jennifer put it (with your agreement): “we have to make sure we are treating the right patients with the right treatments.” This is true not least because the wrong treatment can lead to long term disability.
So I couldn’t agree more that we need to distinguish between the different types of patients, but we’re not going to do this as long as we keep on using a dogs breakfast of different criteria to identify patients, frequently conflating ME/CFS with generic chronic fatigue and even making up new variations as we go along. I’m afraid that a prime example of the latter appeared in the original protocol for FITNET-NHS, which – for no very good reason – proposed using a version of the NICE criteria which did not require the presence of post-exertional malaise. I understand that this has now been scrapped but why on earth was it thought to be a good idea in the first place? Unless we start describing patients precisely and consistently, we will never get anywhere.
You mentioned that some of your patients do not respond well to graded exercise and it would be interesting to see if such patients fit the Canadian criteria rather than Fukuda or NICE. You also showed great interest when Jennifer described the use of the VO2 Max test to try to make sense of patient response to exercise. You even suggested collaboration. Would it not be possible to make that happen? It is indeed important to distinguish between the different types of patients so why are you not using some of these (what seem to me to be) obvious strategies to help you do so?
I think it is great that you are helping so many children who respond well to your therapies but you acknowledge that many do not and I can only agree that there is a very great need to distinguish between them, not least for the sake of those who you describe as having severe symptoms for a long time. As you say ‘that is where most of the attention needs to go’. Once again, I can only agree. I applaud what is obviously your heartfelt desire to help such children. As a concerned and assertive patient, I urge you to do whatever you can to bring that about.

 

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Swings amongst the Roundabouts

Looking at the Evidence

As you may know, a few days ago the Journal of Health Psychology published a very important special issue critiquing in depth the controversial, deeply flawed PACE Trial, a study which purported to provide evidence for the use of graded exercise and a very specific type of CBT in the treatment of ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known – misleadingly – as chronic fatigue syndrome or CFS). Congratulations to the journal’s editor Prof David F Marks for taking the trouble to inform himself about the true situation regarding ME. He is one of very few scientists and health professionals who despite having no personal or pre-existing professional interest in the condition has made the effort to look at the facts and realise that – unlikely as it may seem to many – the PACE Trial and similar ‘research’ into ME by those with a fixed biopsychosocial mindset really is every bit as flawed, misleading and potentially damaging as patients have been claiming for years. Dr David Tuller, Prof James Coyne, and Prof Jonathan Edwards are other rare free thinkers who have not been afraid to get informed and challenge the status quo – or to put it another way, to point out that the emperor is naked because that is what he is.

By contrast, those who persist in defending PACE give the impression that they have simply taken the word of the PACE investigators rather than study the actual evidence. Prof Malcolm Macleod, who was trotted out by the Science Media Centre as an ‘expert’ in response to the special issue, seemed only aware of one of PACE’s many flaws and seemed to base his defence of the study chiefly on the ‘doubtful provenance’ of some of its critics. It is another example of people being judged on the basis of who they are, rather than what they say or where the truth lies.

As for Prof George Davey Smith, who left the JHP’s editorial board in protest at the PACE-related special issue, he seemed to positively gloat about his ignorance of ME at last year’s CMRC conference, this in spite of his involvement with the much vaunted though controversial MEGA study, and even referred to it as CSF rather than CFS, apparently mixing up chronic fatigue syndrome with cerebrospinal fluid.

Speaking on Twitter, David F Marks described his disappointment that George Davey Smith did not ‘offer a pro-PACE commentary instead of leaving in a huff’. He (Marks) has offered to debate with PACE supporters in a public forum at any time. I don’t suppose he’ll get any takers. That would put them to the trouble of actually sitting down and informing themselves of the true situation.

Marks, meanwhile, has studied the facts and has drawn his own conclusion. He says: ‘“The many wrongs committed by psychiatry and medicine to the ME/CFS community can only be righted when the Pace trial is ultimately seen for what it is: a disgraceful confidence trick to reduce patient compensation payments and benefits.’ To which I would add: ‘also an exercise to try to protect the reputations of a small number of health professionals who have built their illustrious careers on the back of an unproven ‘biopsychosocial hypothesis’.

Meanwhile the proponents of PACE continue to take the cream of the research money here in the UK, so inhibiting much-needed biomedical progress; unsuspecting patients are given potentially damaging courses of graded exercise; and the number of parents threatened with ME-related child custody proceedings appears to be spiralling upwards, all this fuelled by the unproven biopsychosocial hypothesis.

As The Times article reported with great relish, James Coyne allegedly called the departing Davey-Smith ‘a disgusting old fart neoliberal hypocrite’. This may seem a little harsh but if language like that helps to get the truth about PACE in the newspapers, then so be it as far as I am concerned. And in view of the human suffering which underlies the farce that is PACE, perhaps such language is restrained.

Note: David Tuller’s response to the Science Media Centre’s ‘expert comments’ on the JHP special issue is here.

Hillsborough Law – Shifting the Balance in Favour of Truth

Continue reading “Hillsborough Law – Shifting the Balance in Favour of Truth”

Spotlight on GETSET Julie

Do GET Yourself

GETSET, the latest paper on graded exercise therapy by lead PACE investigator Peter White (et al), provides an excellent opportunity to probe into the nitty gritty of such a trial. The study required patients to administer their own GET so some of the details previously hidden by smoke and mirrors are laid bare in the explanatory booklet which served as the patients’ bible during the study.

Here are some quotes from the booklet (in blue) followed by my comments:

A GET programme will help you gradually improve your ability to undertake some of the physical activities that you have been unable to do since becoming unwell.’

The word ‘will’ seems optimistic here if we’re talking about ME. Though what illness are we talking about, I wonder? This guide refers to CFS/ME but the GETSET paper only mentions CFS. They need to be more specific about what they’re talking about.

However, a self-help guide such as this has not been officially tested so it is important that you check first with your GP or hospital specialist that a GET schedule is suitable for you. You should also continue to consult them regularly while undertaking your GET programme.’

Maybe they’re already wondering if that optimism of theirs was misplaced. This translates as ‘This therapy is totally, totally safe but make sure you tell some other doctors what you’re doing so we can blame it on them if it goes wrong.”

There may be a number of reasons why exercise did not work for you before. You may have started at too high a level of physical exercise, or increased the amount you did too quickly. You may have used an exercise that was too challenging for you now such as jogging, which you could do perfectly well before you became ill with CFS/ME.’

They seem to have forgotten the alternative explanation that it didn’t work because you may have ongoing pathology in your body – as illustrated by some of the biomedical research that got done with the small amount of money that wasn’t all wasted on nonsense like this.

‘The 2007 National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines for the management of CFS/ME recommend GET as one of the most effective therapies for CFS/ME.’

But they’ve read a virology blog and may be having second thoughts. (Interesting that there’s no mention of the PACE trial here, by the way.)

‘After a period of illness most people find that they take some time to recover. During this recovery period we tend to avoid physical activity and rest more than usual. When we do less each day our body loses fitness and strength in a physical process called deconditioning. The result of deconditioning is that we become physically tired much sooner…’

‘The inability to function as before leads to frustration and an eventual lack of motivation for any physical activity. This starts a vicious cycle of avoiding activity and increased fatigue which then results in further deconditioning. The aim of GET is to break this cycle.’

That’s clear enough. They’re saying that CFS/ME is caused by deconditioning. This is a form of what they call ‘false ideation’. We think we’re ill but we’re not. So why does it say in the GETSET paper that ‘the relative efficacy of a behavioural intervention does not imply that chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by psychological factors’? This programme of treatment seems to be based on the supposition that it is caused by psychological factors. There seems to be incongruity at the very heart of the study. (Of course, there is plenty of evidence that ME is caused by some form of ongoing pathology rather than deconditioning. Is that why they’re fudging the issue?)

‘Regular physical activity is known to have considerable benefits: it improves the efficiency of the heart, lungs and circulation and generally helps the body to deal better with the demands of daily life.’

Unless of course some of the patients have ME. (I wonder if they’ve checked on that yet?)

‘It will be easier to keep exercising on a regular basis if you enjoy what you are doing. It could be an aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, swimming; a home or gym based exercise programme; or just increasing things you do at home such as housework (e.g. vacuuming), gardening, or climbing stairs.’

I thought I read somewhere that research had shown aerobic exercise wasn’t good for people with ME. Or was that because they hadn’t chosen a type they enjoyed enough? If only I’d swum with dolphins instead of the vacuuming…

‘Your muscles can feel heavy after exercise, and you may feel physically tired. With CFS/ ME these feelings of physical tiredness can be more intense, but they will also help you sleep.’

Yes, as any person with ME will tell you, intense pain and exhaustion are just the thing for a good night’s sleep.

‘If you do have a setback, do not despair. They are relatively common in people with CFS/ME and you need to develop a plan to deal with them.’

You may find the longer this goes on, the more ‘relatively common’ your setbacks become. A good plan to deal with them may be to leave the trial.

‘If your setback is not CFS/ME related, in other words you have picked up an infection, you should reduce the amount of exercise you do, or even stop altogether for a short while, before returning to your GET programme. If your setback is CFS/ME related then you should try and continue exercising at your current level to the best of your ability.’

So if you get a cold, that could be serious so you need to stop for a while, but if it’s just ME, there’s no need to worry: just press on…

‘It is often incorrectly assumed that an increase in symptoms equals harm. It doesn’t.’

Glad we cleared that one up. This may explain why no harms were reported on the trial. Do they concede there’s a harm if somebody actually dies, I wonder?

‘If you continue at the exercise level you are on now you may well find that you feel no worse, and after a short while you may actually feel better. Remember that although you may not feel like exercising during a CFS/ME related setback, by resting too much you can quickly lose the physical gains that you have made. Setbacks are a normal part of recovery and so it is important to remain as positive as possible. As you get stronger you will find that you have fewer setbacks and they are less severe and last a shorter time.’

Somewhere over the rainbow…

In the next post, I’ll move on to look at the focal figure of the GETSET Guide, Julie, who has already become an internet phenomenon…

 

Spreading the Word

privateeye-hammond-dec2016-web

Dr Phil Hammond’s latest column in Private Eye is called ‘Trial on Trial’. You may remember he wrote quite a helpful column about ME just recently. This time he writes in response to criticism from a doctor who got in touch to say:

“Every illness has a physical, psychological and social component, and limiting diagnosis or treatment to only one aspect of someone’s illness is likely to lead to a much poorer outcome. This ‘triple diagnosis’ applies to any complaint you care to consider, although obviously in varying proportions. The one exception seems to be CFS/ME, where any suggestion that there might be a psychological or social component leads to criticism. That CBT is the only treatment which has repeatedly been shown to have any benefit is conveniently ignored.”

It does become tiresome having to deal with such ‘arguments’ time and time again. Once upon a time it was ‘yuppie flu’ that popped up in every article about ME. Now, at long last, that is slowly fading away. Yet now we have to deal with this endlessly repeated idea that ME patients have an unreasonable and unsubstantiated resistance to any suggestion that there might be a psychological component to our illness. People with cancer are happy enough to go for CBT, we are told. So what’s our objection? Continue reading “Spreading the Word”

More Voices

Many patients and carers left additional comments for Professor Holgate of MEGA when they signed our recent letter. I wasn’t able to carry these over when I transferred the post to its permanent home, so I’m reprinting some of them here.  Sorry I haven’t included them all but I am grateful for all your comments and signatures nevertheless. I shall link to this post when I send the follow-up letter to Prof Holgate (which I hope till be tomorrow). I will post the follow-up letter here on the blog as well.

Here are the comments: Continue reading “More Voices”

The OMEGA Petition – Email to Professor Holgate

This email has been sent to Professor Holgate of MEGA. Many thanks to all those who signed. (Whoops! missed a few… Total signatures now updated to 221)

((Please note that we are not the organisers of the OMEGA petition.))

Dear Professor Holgate – We comprise a number of M.E. patients and carers, 218 in all. Please see our signatures at the end of this email..

We are writing because we notice your suggestion in your letter to Professor Jonathan Edwards that OMEGA (the petition opposing the MEGA study) has attracted so many signatures due to the support of Invest In ME. We are writing to assure you that we patients and carers are able to look at the evidence and make up our own minds on such issues.

Here are some of the grave concerns that we have about the MEGA study as it has been proposed. It seems likely that you have heard many of them before but in view of your professed perplexity about the OMEGA petition, we want to make sure you are aware of the issues. For the same reason, we are copying this to the other members of the MEGA team and to those you copied in to your letter to Professor Edwards. We are also sending a copy to Professor Edwards himself, and the email will be posted online at the Spoonseeker blog.

Our concerns about MEGA include the following:

Patients from the NHS CFS/ME clinics (apparently the intended source for MEGA) will not yield a representative sample of people with M.E. The reasons for this include:

  • Most severely affected patients cannot access the clinics and so will not be included in the study.
  • There will be an inevitable selection bias towards the mildly affected because
    • the clinics will tend to select such patients as those most likely to respond to the behavioural therapies on offer, and
    • the more severely affected patients will be more likely to reject such therapies – and hence the clinics – as inappropriate.
  • Other more severely affected patients will no longer be on the clinic’s system
    • either because they have not responded well to the therapies, dropped out, and not been followed up (as feedback suggests is often the case) or
    • they are among the long term sick who are no longer on the system because treatment is time-restricted

There has been a suggestion, following representations from patients, Continue reading “The OMEGA Petition – Email to Professor Holgate”

Making the Most of MEGA

In an earlier post, I published an email from Leeds ME Network to Sonya Chowdhury, CEO of Action for ME, expressing reservations about the presence of Profs White and Crawley on the team of the proposed MEGA biomedical research project. Here is the latest update from Leeds ME Network:

In response to our letter to Sonya Chowdhury, we have just received what appears to be a standard letter referring to the latest updates on the MEGA petition page at Change.org. Leeds ME Network have now responded in turn with the following email, slight variations of which will be sent to Ms Chowdhury; Stephen Holgate the CMRC Chair; Dr Charles Shepherd at ME Association; and ME Research UK. Our email follows:

We are grateful to the MEGA team for letting us know about the proposed CFS/ME biomedical research project. We believe it is very important that this study goes ahead but in view of some of the less than helpful research which has taken place in the past (in particular, of course, we are thinking of the PACE trial) we hope you will understand why we patients are keen to voice our concerns about the proposal.

1) The impression has been given that patients for the study group will all be drawn from the NHS Clinics. It seems clear that such a sample would be heavily biased towards less severely affected patients and that the sample would therefore be unrepresentative of the total patient population.

The reasons for this are as follows: Continue reading “Making the Most of MEGA”