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.
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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):

 

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…

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.”

 

Have You Been Harmed by PACE?

Dr Sarah Myhill has written a comprehensive letter of complaint to the General Medical Council about the conduct of the authors of the PACE Trial. You can find the full text here. This is a courageous letter which states very publicly and unequivocally what a great many patients have been saying for some time: that in the way they have conducted the Trial, the PACE authors are guilty of fraud.

Dr Myhill is asking for patients who have been harmed by the Trial to support her by sharing their experience with the GMC using a template letter which can find it in a Word document here. Please try to find the time and energy to do this if your health allows. Dr Myhill is taking on a lot in trying to help patients in this way. I believe she deserves the support of us all in return.

Craig Robinson, from Dr Myhill’s team, explains in more detail as follows:

*** DR MYHILL HAS COMPLAINED TO THE GMC ABOUT THE PACE AUTHORS ***

*** SHE WANTS YOUR HELP ***

**PLEASE DO COPY YOUR LETTER OF SUPPORT TO cr648@hotmail.co.uk – if you feel comfortable with doing so**

PLEASE SHARE THIS POST AS WIDELY AS POSSIBLE. THIS COMPLAINT IS IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN.

The GMC is the UK doctor’s regulatory authority – the General Medical Council. Patient support is sought from all patients who feel they have been harmed by PACE. You do not have to be a UK citizen.

PACE is the study ‘Comparison of adaptive pacing therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, graded exercise therapy, and specialist medical care for chronic fatigue syndrome (PACE): a randomised trial. (2011)’, published in The Lancet.

SEVEN other medical doctors are supporting this complaint but wish to remain anonymous – they are concerned about the impact of such “whistle-blowing” on their future careers within and without the NHS.

The complaint is one of Fraud, namely:
–fraud by false representation
–fraud by failing to disclose information
–fraud by abuse of position

There are also numerous breaches of:
–GMC Guidance on Good Medical Practice
–GMC Guidance on Good Practice in Research
–GMC Guidance on Consent to Research

Dr Myhill is asking for your help.

Please read the letter of complaint and also the ‘PACE patient support letter‘.

HELPING DR MYHILL

We want people who have been harmed by PACE to write in support of this complaint. You are free to use the PACE patient support template letter. You could have been harmed in any of these ways and possibly others too (please see further notes about this further down the post) :

• suffered damage (including physical, mental or emotional distress) as a result of CBT.
• suffered damage (including physical mental or emotional distress) as a result of GET.
• been denied disability benefits because the physical nature of your disease has not been properly recognised and/or you have been told you have a psychological condition.
• have been denied industrial compensation for your disease because the physical nature of your disease has not been properly recognised and/or you have been told you have a psychological condition.
• have been denied referral or funding for referral to a physician specialising in the biomedical approach to treating CFS/ME.

You do NOT have to have been diagnosed or have fallen ill with CFS/ME after PACE was published [March 2011] to support this complaint.

So, for example if you were diagnosed/fell ill in 1980, but have recently been refused benefits as a result of PACE [for example, for not engaging in CBT or because your illness was considered psychological) or maybe you have suffered mental distress as a result of PACE (for example, benefit applications were more stressful because your illness was considered psychological) then you CAN support this complaint. It will help our case to have as many support letters as possible.

If you feel you have even the smallest ‘case’ for inclusion then please do submit a letter of support – it is incumbent on the GMC to prove that you have not been so affected, not for you to prove that you have!

Please do email if you are in doubt or need help phrasing why you have been harmed by PACE. Please be patient – we will respond as quickly as possible. See the hotmail email address below.

Just put your reasons for supporting this complaint in the relevant section in the PACE patient support letter and fill in any other portions that need filling in [all marked in red] and then:

1–email it to TStephenson@gmc-uk.org – Sir Terence Stephenson is the Chair of the GMC

2–if you can, please send your letter by post too, here is the address –
Sir Terence Stephenson
General Medical Council
Fitness to Practise Directorate
3 Hardman Street
Manchester, M3 3AW.

3—if you feel comfortable with doing so, please can you copy your letter of support to Dr Myhill at cr648@hotmail.co.uk [in the past the GMC have denied receiving letters of support and having physical copies to collate and send to them has been a very powerful tool]

GENERAL COMMENTS

We cannot engage in a running commentary on progress but will give updates as and when possible and necessary.

We know that GMC employees or people who report to the GMC are members of the Dr Myhill groups and so we do have to be circumspect.

You may feel that the letter of complaint could be improved – good!

In 15 years of dealing with the GMC, and other regulatory bodies, one thing above all has become clear: these regulatory investigations are like a game of chess. A marathon not a sprint. You have to plan 6 moves in advance…

Essentially, we are saying – trust us! Between us we have won 30 GMC cases as defendants and numerous cases across many regulatory bodies as complainants.

Thank you.

Here’s Craig again with an update:

N.B. The harm done to you does NOT have to fall within the 5 broad categories listed in the template letter. ANY harm or ANY DISTRESS caused by PACE is ”enough”. See as follows for an example of how another patient has put it in her great letter:

  • I have suffered mental distress as a result of PACE. For example, benefit applications, and assessments were more stressful because my illness was considered psychological
  • Visits to doctors, and consultants, and NHS emergency departments are more stressful because my illness is considered psychological.
  • I am denied treatment because my illness is considered psychological
  • I am accused of wasting time, and lying, and treated with contempt and suspicion because my illness is considered psychological
  • My word and experience is dismissed because my illness is considered psychological, and I am labelled as ‘mentally ill’.
  • I am labelled as a delusional patient because of negative connotations implied by doctors and NHS staff.
  • It appears all my other health issues, and concerns are now considered psychological, and therefore dismissed as imaginary
  • I experienced extreme trauma, HARM & LOSS because my illness was considered psychological
  • I was targeted, and harmed after complaining, because my illness was considered psychological
  • I am denied compensation for my disease because the physical nature of it has not been properly recognised and/or told I have a psychological condition
  • It is my belief PACE WAS AT THE ROOT OF THESE PROBLEMS