The NICE Guidelines – Starting Again?

N.B. Please sign the NICE Guidelines Committee petition – see below.

There was some encouraging feedback from the recent NICE ME/CFS Guidelines Stakeholder meeting, an early milestone in the long process of revising the guidelines. But was such encouragement justified? I wasn’t there myself, so I am grateful to those who attended on our behalf. Blogger and patient advocate Sally Burch reported that Guidelines Director Prof Mark Baker declared: “We’re going to tear it up and start again. We won’t allow it to look the same” while Prof Jonathan Edwards reported as follows (writing in the Science for ME forum):

“What intrigued me most was the elephant in the room – the reason why we were there at all, which was not mentioned once by the speakers from the floor and I suspect hardly at all even in the groups – the need to remove recommendations for CBT and GET. It nevertheless became clear that the NICE staff were absolutely clear that this was why we were there and that they had taken on board that this was not an issue for a few minority activists but essentially for all patients. At our table the facilitator said ‘I presume everyone here is agreed on that’ – despite the fact that a paediatrician and an occupational therapist were present who I suspect may not have realised this was why we were there and for whom these remained standard practice”.

All this talk of ‘tearing it up’ and scrapping CBT and GET was less in evidence however, in the letters which Prof Baker exchanged with Kathleen MCCall (who was representing the Trustees of Invest in ME). Writing in advance of the Stakeholder meeting, Prof Baker wrote: “I appreciate that the existing recommendations are a matter of concern to some patients and groups and we will give some consideration to whether we need to modify or omit any of the existing recommendations during the development of the new guideline”.

This does not exactly sound like ‘tearing up and starting again’ so when the feedback from the meeting emerged, Invest in ME wrote again to question the discrepancies. This time, Prof Baker’s response was of particular interest. He wrote:

“I did indeed say that we will fully replace the guideline and start again…. However, it does not mean that we reject everything that is in the current guideline.”

So this sounds like parts of the guidelines are to be torn up then reinstated, which is easy enough with a roll of sticky tape but a bit confusing for those trying to gauge the mood music at NICE. Prof Baker goes on to explain:

“The problem is, I believe, in the unthinking and ill-informed manner in which the recommendations are imposed on people for whom they are not intended and/or not suitable… I was struck by some of the stories at the workshop about the misuse of the current recommendations and the disturbing extent to which they are imposed on people who are unlikely to benefit from them and for whom alternative approaches would be sensible… The current wording makes clear that patient agreement is required but I imagine that consent is not usually sought and that patients are not considered to have rights to refuse (which they invariably do have in fact).”

So it seems that Prof Baker is at least convinced of the need to safeguard severely ill patients, who do indeed all too often have GET imposed upon them – in clear violation of the existing guidelines. This crucial change is to be encouraged, of course, as is the need for all patients to be informed they have the right to refuse treatment. How exactly this is to be achieved is another matter however. As “the current wording makes clear that patient agreement is required”, what do you do to ensure such agreement is sought? Perhaps the addition of the words “we really mean it this time” in bold print would do the trick. The wholesale removal of GET from the guidelines would be more effective, I suspect, but to judge by Prof Baker’s letter to Invest in ME, that doesn’t appear to be on offer.

He says: “scrapping the entire guideline now would be massively counter-productive as it would almost certainly result in the withdrawal of the already dwindling number of services available to people with ME. Therefore, a rather more limited approach would be required to protect what is good whilst modifying what may be harmful”.

So in spite of saying he wants to tear the whole thing up and start again, Prof Baker clearly believes that bits of it are good and need to be protected. I can’t avoid the growing suspicion that these bits might include CBT and GET. Indeed, if not CBT and GET then what? A large part of our problem is that when it comes down to what purports to be ‘evidence-based’, there isn’t anything else. Of course the ‘evidence’ for CBT and GET is extremely unconvincing, as David Tuller and others have illustrated time and again, and the reason there isn’t the evidence for anything else is that CBT and GET – and the misapprehension about the condition which their adoption has brought into being – have effectively put paid to biophysical research for many decades. This sad circumstance may give us the moral high ground – from the perspective of those who understand – but it doesn’t actually help.

As Jonathan Edwards puts it: “All in all it seems to me that something important has been achieved but there is still more work to do. NICE are very clear that the great majority of patients believe that CBT and GET are worse than useless. They realise that a committee must not be made up entirely of psychiatrists. However, when the committee comes to look at the evidence the only evidence for treatments working they will find will be on CBT and GET. It is going to be hard for them to not at least mention that there is supposed to be some evidence. Hopefully that will not be followed by a recommendation. However, I sense an attitude even amongst physicians and paediatricians that if CBT and GET are not available they will have nothing to offer. A lot of doctors find that uncomfortable. They should not but they do. So there will be a tendency for CBT and GET to remain in the guidelines even if watered down. That will depend to a degree on who is on the committee. That needs some thought. Applications are being taken in June and July.”

So yes indeed, the personnel on the committee will be of vital importance. Graham McPhee, John Peters, Sally Burch and numerous other patient advocates have written a letter to NICE requesting that the committee members are chosen with openness and integrity. They have also produced a petition which anyone can sign. Over 2,700 have done so already. If you haven’t signed yet, please consider joining them.

This is important. As Jonathan Edwards says, doctors feel uncomfortable if they have nothing to offer. This unfortunate fact is the reason why so many patients with physical illnesses over the years have been treated as though they have a mental health issue. It probably won’t help the patient but it’s better for the doctor than feeling powerless.

Sad to say, CBT and GET may remain in the guidelines for this reason, if for no other. They haven’t been torn up yet. We can’t even be sure that Prof Baker’s proposed amendments to avoid the inappropriate imposition of these ‘treatments’ will be acted upon, as he is due to retire before the new guidelines are finalised.

It is good that many patient advocates attending the meeting left with a good feeling about it but, as I am sure they realise, the battle is far from over yet. As a starter, we need the right people on the guidelines committee. Don’t forget to sign that petition

Update: Apologies for my previous PS about the Royal College of Physicians (which I’ve now removed). It turns out I was quoting the wrong Royal College from the table. I hate to spread misinformation so many thanks to Annie who left a comment to set me straight. Nevertheless, as she points out, there is no reason for undue confidence in the RCP who are to take a leading role in the guidelines revision. Annie writes as follows:

“Excellent summary of where things stand so far with the review of the NICE guidelines.

“One point though the worrying comment you cite from the stakeholders comments during last summer’s consultation exercise was made by the Royal College of GP’s, not the Royal College of Physicians if I am reading the table correctly on page 89? Nonetheless, the Royal College of Physicians said they endorsed the comments of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the neurologists whose submissions were poor and inaccurate and did not want the guidelines updated, so I am still not filled with confidence having the Royal College of Physicians so heavily involved.”



The Hidden Burden of M.E.

A couple of days ago, on Severe M.E. Day, I came across this post by ‘Terry’ (pseudonym) on an M.E.-related Facebook group:


I’m starting to write this at 4 o’clock in the morning. I have sleep reversal, and today, August 8th, is Severe M.E Understanding and Remembrance Day.

2 nights ago, seeking support, I posted under the title “Injured” that I had damaged my ribs, asking if anyone would be awake late, very late.
People were lovely and kind, some offering a number of solutions.

What the responses made me realise, however, is that I hadn’t done a very good job of explaining the severity of my condition generally. In fact, in crisis due to the injury, I hadn’t been able to explain anything at all.

When I joined the group, I never introduced myself and didn’t explain that I have a profoundly severe case of M.E. So, it feels a little bit like it might if one was gay and not ‘out’. Everybody’s assuming how I identify and offering solutions based on that mindset.
So, in honour of inclusivity and Severe M.E Understanding and Remembrance Day, I’m coming out, but just a little to save on your patience:

I haven’t left my home, bedroom or bed, since 1993, apart from an imposed house move, by ambulance and stretcher in 2003.
For 25 years I’ve been 100% bedbound and “bodybound” – barely able to move in the bed and only occupying two positions, either lying on my left side or propped by pillows for just long enough to eat.
At a very early point it was threatened that I would be removed from the practice list if I requested a home visit. The GPs refused to visit for 23 years “unless there was a medical need” . That is, they would come out to assess e.g a chest infection but there would be no management of my condition of severe and profound M.E.
I’ve recently actually been visited by a new GP, after the old ones retired (but only because of another acute injury) who has offered to visit me once a year. You might say ‘big deal!’ yet this one visit per year is an amazing, unprecedented and vast improvement.

I only gained access to the Internet in the spring of 2016 and find that most of the M.E groups on Facebook are solutions-orientated.
After the cumulative effects of 39 years I’m physically fragile, and exhausted beyond belief, and cannot even tolerate someone else helping. No interventions are possible.
I’m intolerant to all medication and frequently experience an inverse or idiosyncratic reaction. I’m barely able to move and can’t soak in the tub, visit a chiropractor or even apply creams designed to relieve the pain and inflammation.

Due to the severity and chronicity of my M.E I wasn’t/am not able to take any action whatsoever to alleviate or treat the extreme and acute pain caused by the injury.

The reason that I’m writing this is that, I’m sincerely glad for those who are able to follow protocols and improve their quality of life, but we need to be aware that this is not the case for everyone in the group.
There are those of us still out here for whom nothing has changed, because nothing is able to be changed.
We are invisible, ignored and sidelined and for the sake of the inclusivity of our group I’m hoping to make people living with very Severe M.E a little less invisible, once again, today.

(End of Terry’s post.)

This drastically abridged version of Terry’s situation seems to me to be eloquent evidence of:

1) how very extreme severe M.E. can be

2) the extent to which severely affected patients are – quite openly – neglected by health professionals

3) the way such patients feel they have to hide the full extent of their situation not only from people in general but even from people with M.E. who are less severely affected.

Most of us with M.E, have some experience of this feeling that we need to ‘hide away’ or ‘stay in the closet’ about our condition, usually because we can’t quite face the sheer extent of people’s ignorance about what we’re going through. In particular, we can’t face the likelihood that they’ll say something entirely inappropriate in an effort to try to be helpful and thereby trigger emotions we can ill afford the energy to experience.

How much worse must this be for those who are as severely affected as Terry, for whom the gulf of understanding is so much greater, who are even more likely to be met with jaw-dropping disbelief instead of appropriate empathy.

By and large this ignorance isn’t other people’s fault. It should be up to the health profession to inform them. But health professionals are of course the least likely to understand. They are the most likely to listen to the lies of those of their number who have built their careers on unfounded untruths about the condition. And this in turn gives them leave to neglect such patients, to ‘refuse to visit for 23 years’ as has been the case with Terry.

Also on Severe M.E. Day, the M.E. Association asked a question on its Facebook page:

If you have been severely affected by ME, or are currently severely affected, or are a carer or family member of someone severely or very severely affected, what changes would you like to see to the care that you (or the person you care for) receive from the NHS?

At the time of writing, many people have left comments or suggestions, including one from my wife Chris who has severe M.E. herself and is largely housebound but not (touch wood) bedbound for the time being. Chris wrote:

I would like to see the following charities really focus on improving things for severe ME people & lobbying NHS England for this.
The NICE guidelines do nothing for the severely affected….
I am thinking of a working collaborative of the MEA, Invest in ME, Tymes Trust, The ME Trust..working with each other & the 25% Group. (I have not included Action for ME because they are not trusted by many patients, ESPECIALLY THE SEVERELY AFFECTED owing to their close collaboration with the biopsychosocial NHS clinics & Esther Crawley).

1. to establish a dedicated flying squad of well informed, trained & compassionate health care professionals in each region of the country
2. to establish the exact numbers & a directory /database of people severely affected, visit severe ME patients WHO CANNOT TRAVEL even to any centres which are set up…
4. to provide help/ palliative care to them in their own beds at home
5. to liaise with their GPs/Social Services/carers etc

Such an initiative would not be ‘solutions-oriented’. The health professionals would not be trained to expect the patients to be up and about after a few months of encouragement. But they would be willing to assess and acknowledge the terrible situation in which so many severely affected find themselves, to allow them to be as they are without fear of blame, and to shine a light on the heavy burden such patients have had to carry, while the money which should have been spent on research to address the physical roots of their illness has been squandered instead on desperate attempts to justify exercise programmes.

If you agree with Chris’s suggestion or have some ideas of your own about what can be done to improve things for the severely affected, you can still respond on the MEA Facebook page. The post was on 8 August at 8-25 am.

Thanks to Terry for permission to repost their thoughts.