Wednesday 18th August 2021 was meant to be a good day. It was meant to see the publication of the long awaited review of the NICE guidelines on the treatment of ME. It was supposed to be a new beginning. The beginning of a future in which people with ME would be taken seriously.
NICE are the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the English public body who provide guidance on the appropriate treatment and care of people with specific diseases and conditions. An English organisation, but they also have influence over the Scottish Good Practice Statement, the Scottish version of the NICE guidelines.
“We are going to tear it up and start again. We won’t allow it to look the same.”
Professor Mark Baker, Director of the Centre for Guidelines speaking at a NICE stakeholder meeting for CG53: 16th January 2018.
When NICE announced that they were going to review the ME guidelines, I was sceptical, but as I learned more about the review process, and heard what the Director of the Centre for Guidelines had to say, I began to trust them. I trusted that they were going to do right by people with ME.
The old guidelines would unfortunately remain in place until the review was complete, but there was hope that the current recommended Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Graded Exercise Therapy (CBT/GET) would eventually be scrapped.
These therapies are based on the now discredited theory that ME is not a physiological illness, but a psychiatric condition in which patients have ‘false illness beliefs’. We ‘believe’ we are unwell, we ‘believe’ that we have an intolerance to exertion, and as such we fear exercise and become deconditioned.
The idea behind the therapies is that CBT can cure us of our false illness beliefs, then we undertake a programme of GET to gradually increase our activity, and recover.
This was supposedly proven in the now discredited PACE Trial.
The PACE Trial is the basis on which the NHS ‘treat’ ME. It also impacts heavily on clinical policy abroad, both in terms of government funded healthcare and the private medical insurance industry. Due to the influence of the trial’s authors, funding of ME research in the UK has primarily been poured into psychiatry, rather than much needed biomedical research. Misconceptions about ME already existed, but the PACE Trial cemented these into the minds of the government, the medical establishment, the media and the general public.
The results of the trial were published in 2011. PACE found that patients being treated with CBT/GET over a six-month period improved by 60% while the recovery rate was 20%. However, thanks to a Freedom of Information request by a group of ME patients (which involved a drawn out five year legal battle with the PACE Trial authors spending £200,000 in an attempt to stop the data from being released) it came to light that the researchers changed midway through the trial what constituted as improved and recovered. Participants could end the trial being more unwell than when they started, yet they were still categorised as recovered. The authors basically manipulated the data to reach the conclusion that they wanted. When the authors were forced to release the raw data, new analysis found that patients actually only experienced a 20% improvement, and only 5% could be considered as recovered. Would a pharmaceutical intervention with such low odds be approved for use?
Uniquely for a clinical trial, and very strangely, the PACE Trial was partially funded by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the UK government department for sickness, disability and pension benefits. Is it a coincidence that the PACE Trial is often used to deny ME patients disability benefits?
It’s also worth noting that the trial used the Oxford criteria for the diagnosis of the participants, which is widely considered to be overly broad and it doesn’t include the cardinal symptom of ME, Post Exertional Malaise (PEM), an intolerance to exercise/exertion. Rather, it lists fatigue as the main symptom. Furthermore, research has shown that for every fifteen patients selected under the Oxford Criteria, fourteen will be false positives when compared to the more up-to-date and robust Canadian Consensus Criteria. So we don’t even know how many of the trial participants had ME to begin with.
Thankfully, the truth came out, and while the trial hasn’t yet been officially retracted, it is widely discredited. It’s even being taught at the University of California, Berkeley, as an example of how not to conduct a clinical trial. Very embarrassing for the trial’s authors!
“I think that when the full details of the trial become known, it will be considered one of the biggest medical scandals of the 21st century.”
Carol Monaghan MP speaking at the PACE Trial: People with ME, House of Commons Debate, 20th February 2018
As if the bad science wasn’t enough, it gets worse. It turns out that the PACE Trial authors failed to disclose a conflict of interest. The main investigators of the trial had financial and consulting relationships with disability insurance companies, advising them that rehabilitative therapies like CBT and GET could help ME claimants get off benefits and back to work. They gave the medical insurance industry a reason to withhold payouts – a condition of the payout would be that the ME patient undergoes a GET programme, which many refuse to do as they know it would make them worse. So, it’s not surprising why the trial authors have such a vested interest in keeping these therapies in the NICE guidelines.
The proponents of CBT/GET have nothing but contempt for ME patients. They believe us to be ‘malingerers’, that we perpetuate our false illness beliefs for ‘secondary gains’. Meaning, they think that we benefit from having a disability in terms of what we can gain from it: social security/benefits, equipment, accommodation, support, care and attention from family and friends, a good excuse to avoid things we don’t want to do, and my favourite, apparently we enjoy the ‘social mystique’!
Now that I think about it, of course these gains make up for the loss of my career, having to sell my beautiful flat in Edinbugh, having to withdraw from my dream-come-true of spending four months living and working in Antarctica, the loss of friendships, the loss of income, my loss of self-worth and sense of purpose, the pain, the chronic migraines, the comorbidities, the loss of my fertility, the loss of my strength, fitness and stamina, not being able to participate in my hobbies, the food intolerances, the isolation, the loneliness, the anxiety, the fear, the depression, the suicidal ideation, the loss of my freedom and independence, the stigma, the ‘yuppie flu’ jokes, the intolerance, the ableism, the discrimination and the inaccessibility. Yep, I’m good with these, because never mind Antarctica, all I’ve ever wanted is to have my sole income be at the mercy of the grotesquely inhumane DWP, and don’t forget my ‘social mystique’.
One of the cardinal symptoms of ME, in fact, THE cardinal symptom of ME is exertion/exercise intolerance. This is backed up by science – people with ME have a pathological inability to produce energy on demand at a cellular level. Research has found immune cells taken from the blood of people with ME show clear signs of low energy production. Simply put, if exercise makes you feel better, then that in itself rules out an ME diagnosis.
CBT and other talking therapies can be helpful to support ME patients as they learn to cope with having a chronic illness, but in the context of the NICE guidelines, that is not the manner in which CBT is currently recommended. It also seems that GET may be an effective treatment for some conditions, but not only is it ineffective for people with ME, it’s dangerous.
For ME patients, GET is “extremely barbaric” and “government sponsored malpractice”.
Ron Davis, Professor of Biochemistry & Genetics and Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center at Stanford University, and the Open Medicine Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board Director, speaking at an Emerge Australia research symposium.
There is a long history of GET harming people. So many stories around the world from adults and children whose ME worsened after GET. People who could walk pre-GET but required a wheelchair afterwards. People who previously had a life outside of their homes but became bedbound. People who knew GET was harming them but were forced through it in order to access benefits or medical insurance payouts. GET has forced young adults with no alternative support system into care homes for the elderly. GET has stripped people of what little quality of life they had. GET has caused Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). GET has caused permanent and severe disability. GET has resulted in loss of life. There’s no official record of this though. Unlike with pharmaceutical interventions, in which (in the UK) we can report side-effects through the Yellow Card Scheme, there is no official channel to report the harm caused by these therapies. So all the evidence is anecdotal, and for some, that’s not proof enough.
After decades of GET being forced upon ME patients, after all the harm that has been caused, we finally began to believe that things were going to change. In November 2020 NICE released the draft of the new guidelines, and the ME community were collectively delighted to find that GET was to be scrapped, and that CBT should only be used to help patients cope with having ME. This was monumentous news. ME patients in the UK were no longer going to be harmed by this dangerous practice, and it would hopefully also influence ME guidelines worldwide.
“Do not offer people with ME/CFS: any programme based on fixed incremental increases in physical activity or exercise, for example Graded Exercise Therapy.”Excerpt from NICE Draft Guideline
“Only offer cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to people with ME/CFS who would like to use it to support them in managing their symptoms of ME/CFS and to reduce the psychological distress associated with having a chronic illness. Do not offer CBT as a treatment or cure for ME/CFS.”Excerpt from NICE Draft Guideline
“Recognise that people with ME/CFS may have experienced prejudice and disbelief and feel stigmatised by people who do not understand their illness.”Excerpt from NICE Draft Guideline
Click here for the full draft guidelines.
I think we were all fairly confident that this would make it into the final guidelines, and the date for publication was set for Wednesday 18th August 2021.
Then on Tuesday 17th August 2021, NICE released a statement…
NICE pauses publication of updated guideline on diagnosis and management of ME/CFS
NICE has today (17 August 2021) taken the decision to pause publication of its updated guideline on the diagnosis and management of myalgic encephalomyelitis (or encephalopathy)/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).
The guideline recognises that ME/CFS is a complex, multi-system, chronic medical condition where there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing symptoms. The causes of ME/CFS are still poorly understood and because of this there are strong views around the management of this debilitating condition.
Because of issues raised during the pre-publication period with the final guideline, we need to take time to consider next steps. We will hold conversations with professional and patient stakeholder groups to do this. We need to do this so that the guideline is supported.
NICE has used its usual rigorous methodology and process in developing this guideline but despite the best efforts of the committee, that followed these to the letter to bring together the available evidence and the real, lived experience and testimony of people with ME/CFS, we have not been able to produce a guideline that is supported by all.
We want to thank everyone who has contributed to this guideline and particularly the committee and the patient groups who have worked so diligently. However, unless the recommendations in the guideline are supported and implemented by professionals and the NHS, people with ME/CFS may not get the care and help they need.
In order to have the desired impact, the recommendations must be supported by those who will implement them and NICE will now explore if this support can be achieved.NICE 17 August 2021
We all knew that not all medical professionals were on board with the removal of CBT/GET. Not because they have ME patient’s interests at heart, but because there are some very influential people with a vested interest in keeping CBT/GET in the guidelines. Disappointingly it now appears that NICE are bowing down to pressure from within the medical establishment. This isn’t about science, or evidence, or medicine, it’s about politics, and perhaps even nepotism.
I knew there would be significant push back from certain parties. Before NICE released their statement on Tuesday I posted on Twitter…
“How long until Wessely, Sharpe & co publicly push back against the new NICE guidelines? They’ll be desperately trying to save their professional reputations in the wake of NICE formally denouncing their life’s work on #MEcfs.”@PhoebsBo, Twitter, 17/08/21 2.06pm
I didn’t expect it to happen QUITE so quickly, I Tweeted this less than three hours later…
“Well, right away it seems. I can’t think of any other reason why @NICEComms are now delaying the publication of the new guidelines, other than the interference of Wessely, Sharpe & co. NICE are not above corruption, it seems.”@PhoebsBo, Twitter, 17/08/21 4.44pm
Interestingly The Times reported on Tuesday about a planned backlash from within the medical establishment…
Disputed therapies for myalgic encephalomyelitis abandoned
“The Times understands that leading medical bodies are considering refusing to endorse the guidance.”Sean O’Neill, The Times Tuesday 17th August 2021
In my Tweets I mention Simon Wessely and Michael Sharpe, both of whom are amongst those with the vested interests.
Simon Wessely is a British Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College London. He helped develop the cognitive behavioural model of ME/CFS, a rehabilitation-based model in which unhelpful thoughts and avoidance behavior are believed to perpetuate the symptoms of ME/CFS, and he helped design the PACE Trial. Wessely believes ME/CFS to be a ‘general disorder of perception’.
Michael Sharpe is a British Professor of Psychological Medicine at St Cross College, Oxford University. Sharpe was author of the Oxford ME/CFS diagnostic criteria, he helped develop the cognitive behavioral model for ME/CFS and ‘medically unexplained symptoms’, and was one of the principal investigators of the PACE Trial, along with Peter White and Trudie Chalder.
Wessely, Sharpe, White and Chalder are some of the UK’s biggest CBT/GET proponents. They are responsible for CBT/GET being in the NICE guidelines to begin with, so of course they don’t want them to be scrapped. As well as screwing up their relationship (and cash flow) with the medical insurance industry, it would essentially mean that NICE were formally denouncing their life’s work on ME. It would leave their professional reputations in tatters.
It is believed, though I don’t know if confirmed, that that the medical establishments at the heart of the above mentioned backlash are the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and the Royal College of General Practitioners. Now, what is it about the RCGP, oh yes, their President is Dr Clare Gerada, wife of Simon Wessely.
It’s also interesting to note that just two weeks (or so) before the publication date three members of the NICE guideline review panel suddenly quit. They were known proponents of CBT/GET (the panel included professionals both for and against for the sake of balance), and seemingly they quit because they didn’t support the new guidelines. Of the three who quit, two of them work as clinical leads for ‘fatigue services’ in the UK and the third is a senior physiotherapist at another similar service. All of these services of course offer CBT/GET as treatments, and I’m guessing that if they are scrapped, these three will be out of a job. Is that not a huge conflict of interest?
It is my belief that it really doesn’t matter if not all doctors are behind the new guidelines. Presumably not all doctors were behind the last lot of guidelines, but NICE went ahead and published them. NICE are there to provide guidance to the NHS, they don’t take their orders from individual doctors or medical associations. They should not allow themselves to be dictated to by a handful of rotten doctors who don’t care a jot about ME patient welfare. So I say, publish the new guidelines anyway and THEN deal with those who refuse to implement them, perhaps by removing their privilege to practice medicine?
Some argue that by removing CBT/GET from the guidelines we’ll be left with nothing, no recommended treatments. GOOD! No treatment is better than a harmful treatment. How anyone is unable to grasp this is beyond me. Even without a treatment there is still plenty that NICE can do to guide the NHS. They can guide GPs on how they can best support their ME patients, how to manage symptoms, to advise their patients to rest and pace, how to support patients who are severe/very severe, when to offer home visits, how to handle hospital admissions, how to support disability benefit, Blue Badge and social care applications, etc. Removing CBT/GET doesn’t mean we’ll be left with a blank page where the guidelines used to be. Even if it did, that would be infinitely better than guidance that knowingly harms patients. The removal of CBT/GET will also pave the way for future funding of biomedical research, because the government will no longer be able to deny funding for research with the excuse that ME already has ‘treatments’.
I have so many questions rolling around my bewildered head…
- Have NICE ever bowed down to pressure from medical professionals upon the pending release of guidelines for any other condition?
- Why aren’t they standing behind their own procedures?
- Do they not have confidence in their own investigative process?
- Why spend over three years studying the evidence, come to a solid conclusion, only to back down the day before?
- NICE previously reported that the evidence used to back up CBT/GET to be of “low” or “very low quality”, so why change their minds now?
- What new evidence came to light in the hours before publication?
- Are they saying that the last three years of work were a waste of time?
- Are they worried that Wessely, Sharpe & co are going to take legal action, and they’re buying time to plan their defence?
- Instead of coddling a group of tantruming ME sceptics, shouldn’t they focus on doing what is right by the ME community – a community who they acknowledge has historically experienced prejudice, disbelief and stigma by people who do not understand ME?
- Why are they so overly concerned about pleasing all of the medical professionals at the expense of patients?
- Why are ME patients not their priority?
- Since when did the practitioner of the therapy trump the needs of the patient?
- Why are the people who are responsible for harming us still being allowed to influence our healthcare?
- Are NICE exceedingly weak, or are they corrupt?
The ME community need answers. NICE owe us transparency. So many ME patients gave their time and energy to inform the new guidelines, filling out questionnaires, sending evidence of harm caused by GET and encouraging others to do the same. In fact NICE received 4000 responses to their consultation, which they said was “significantly higher” than usual. As such they had to delay publication of the final guidance by several months to give themselves time to consider them. I think many of us appreciated that they were taking the process so seriously and we’ve waited patiently. But now, after all we’ve given, all we’ve been through, the trauma of having such a maligned illness, the gaslighting we’ve endured, we deserve the truth. They can’t leave us here, abandoned, dangling in limbo, having no idea what our future holds.
So many of us were ‘living’ for this moment. I have told myself previously, on occasions when I’ve felt suicidal, that I must wait until the NICE guidelines review. I mustn’t do anything permanent, not yet, not when there’s hope that attitudes towards ME may change. I had to hang on, at least until the publication of the new guidelines. I don’t feel the same now, but there are many who do. What do they do now? Keep waiting, indefinitely? ME patients have been waiting for change for decades, it has never happened, so why should we believe it ever will?
The ME community are currently devastated beyond belief. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt quite so dejected and let down, and by an organisation who told us they were going to help us. NICE gave us hope of a lifeline, then snatched it away in the final moments. Unfortunately this situation perfectly represents the way in which ME patients are used to being treated, with disdain, neglect, and a complete lack of care or respect.
NICE should be utterly ashamed of themselves.
SOME NOTABLE REACTIONS TO THE NICE STATEMENT
“For many years, campaigners for psycho-behavioral interventions for ME/CFS have accused patients who objected to the research as being anti-scientific zealots. It was always a ridiculous charge, but developments this week have made it clear, if there was any doubt, that these entitled bullies are the ones immune to the actual evidence…”David Tuller, Virology Blog. Trial By Error: NICE Squares Off Against Royal College Bullies Over New ME/CFS Guidelines.
“I feel frustrated and angry. The action of a small number of people who have persuaded the leadership at the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and possibly other Royal Colleges, to put pressure on NICE to reconsider what had already been agreed by the guideline committee, is reprehensible…”Dr Charles Shepherd, ME Association, Medical Advisor. The NICE Guideline ME/CFS: Personal Observations
“@NICEComms has to decide whether it’s a science-based organisation, or whether it’s beholden to a lobby group that refuses to let go of dangerous and long-discredited quack “treatments” for ME/CFS. Its credibility hangs on the outcome.”George Monbiot, Journalist, Twitter
“Decision of NICE to delay publication of new guidelines for management of ME is a massive blow to patients & charities who have campaigned for better treatment. Have the three years NICE has spent on this been wasted? ME community deserves so much better!”Carol Monaghan, MP, Twitter
“Dear NICE, What new evidence was presented 24h before publication of the new ME/CFS Guidelines? Your draft guidelines said that quality of all 236 separate CBT/GET outcomes was “Low” or “Very Low”. To progress science & clinical care we need to see the evidence.”Professor Chris Ponting, Section Head at Biomedical Genomics, Chair of Medical Bioinformatics, and Principal Investigator at the MRC Human Genetics Unit, Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Deputy Chair of the UK CFS/ME Research Collaborative and Principal Investigator for the DeCode ME/CFS Study, Twitter
“Unbelievable. A tiny cadre of powerful psychiatrists with their legacies on the line are stepping in to try to overturn scientific consensus and the advocacy of tens of thousands of ME patients. UK healthcare is just as broken as US healthcare, just in a different way.”Jennifer Brea, Co-founder of #MEAction, Director of ME Film Documentary Unrest, Twitter
“NICE has delayed publication of new treatment guidelines for ME after @thetimes revealed a planned backlash from the medical establishment. The only losers here are people with ME.”Sean O’Neill, Journalist, Twitter
ME CHARITY STATEMENTS
IN THE NEWS
Please note, in an effort keep my stress levels down I haven’t read any of these articles, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy.
BBC Outrage at chronic fatigue syndrome advice update pause
The Guardian UK health standards body delays new ME guidance in therapy row
Huff Post ‘We Are In The Dark’: Despair For ME Patients As Doctors Can’t Agree On Treatment
The Canary A national health body seems set to throw millions of people under the bus
Daily Mail Health watchdog PAUSES publication of NHS guidelines for treating chronic fatigue syndrome amid dispute over right way to treat the condition
The Independent Health watchdog accused of ‘capitulating to vested interests’ over chronic fatigue as it delays new advice
The Telegraph Health watchdog pauses plans to scrap therapy and exercise as treatments for ME
The National Carol Monaghan hits out over delay to guidance for ME diagnosis and management