Read the latest HealthWatch newsletter:  Newsletter 116, Summer 2021

pollytoynbeeLeading journalist Polly Toynbee was the winner of the 1998 HealthWatch Award for her outstanding contributions in informing the public throughout her career. Ms Toynbee was unable to accept the award in person at this year's Annual General Meeting, but she prepared for us the following report of her views on issues that concern HealthWatch, ranging from health screening to bogus diagnostic techniques.

Questions were put to Ms Toynbee on HealthWatch's behalf by Chairman Professor John Garrow. He began by asking whether she believed that screening programmes involving apparently healthy people do more good than harm? She replied, "As a member of the National Screening Committee, we are bombarded with requests for national screening programmes for a huge variety of ailments, some of them utterly esoteric and rare".

There are currently several hundred haphazard screening programmes in operation, done differently or not at all in different areas, many of them of deeply dubious quality or purpose, many quite expensive. It is plainly going to take time and a lot of persuasion from the centre to get people to stop doing what they have done for a long time, where there are no clear beneficial outcomes. It is much harder to stop existing screening schemes than it is to start new ones.

We started out two years ago and have now drawn up a protocol with which to judge any proposed - or existing - screening programme.

The key principles are that the screening should be for a relatively common disease, that the process should be easy to carry out, will gain public support, a high quality should be maintainable, and that there should be a clear remedy with a definite health gain if disease is detected. The test should provide an acceptable level of false positives and negatives, and people should understand that there will always be some false positives and negatives. Every programme should have a strict quality assurance and effectiveness evaluation built into it. Cost is one element in the consideration, but it is by no means the overriding one. One of the first requests we dealt with was for prostate cancer screening. A huge head of medical pressure had built up for this procedure amongst urologists. There was also quite a strong political pressure from the small but vocal nascent men's movement who felt men should have the same access to screening as women did for breast and cervical cancer. This was the first real test of our resolve to stick by the principles we had drawn up, for prostate screening failed on several counts. The most important of these was that it was still unclear whether if prostate cancer is detected, surgical intervention makes any difference to the outcome. Prostate cancer is found in a high number of older men who will outlive their disease, and surgery can damage their quality of life without offering a clear health gain.

On the other hand, we have decided to go ahead with pilot schemes to test out the effectiveness of screening for bowel cancer. Catching it early has very clear health gains in saving lives, but the pilot will show what level of compliance it gains from the public who have to take part in a test many of the squeamish may find unacceptable. In my view, the work of the committee is very thorough, properly analytical, and well aware that the anxiety which can be caused in screening programmes - and the money wasted - can end up causing the individual and the NHS more harm than good. There is a strong push for screening for every disorder, so we regard it as most important to try to educate the medical profession and the public on the principles of screening. Our work is as public as possible and all papers are available on our own web site on the Internet.

Unvalidated methods of healthcare in conventional/alternative medicine. Is this a great evil to be rooted out? If so, how? Or should we apply caveat emptor?

Personally, I am appalled at the galloping growth in belief in 'alternative' health. Alternative only means anything which hasn't been properly subjected to clinical trials. Prince Charles keeps trying to bring together orthodox and unorthodox methods. Newspapers that thirty years ago would have had no truck with this now peddle it daily on their health pages - especially the Daily Mail - alongside articles on real health care. It is strange and alarming to me that just as more people are being educated for longer, many more doing sciences at least until the age of 16, the world seems eager to abandon basic scientific methods in favour of alchemical mumbo jumbo.

As a first step, there should be a strict edict within the NHS that no unvalidated method should ever be part of the health service. (This might not include osteopathy: for all its weird underlying beliefs, there is good evidence of its efficacy, but only in the first six weeks of back pain - not for chronic long - term conditions.) If the NHS, from the department, took a firm and public stand on this, we would at least start the debate. The Department for Education should take the same view where it is creeping into university courses - usually new universities - often with sponsorship from the makers of herbal and homoeopathic remedies.

I don't think 'caveat emptor' is enough here, when so many newspapers and magazines tell people unscientific stories about miracle cures. Perhaps all remedies, and peddlers of them, should have to tell patients clearly that their quackery has not been tested scientifically. After all, some agents such as ginseng (though goodness knows why only one or two) are specifically banned under Advertising Standards rules from claiming any health - giving properties whatever. Alas, people still take it!

When a procedure is shown to be completely bogus (e.g. iridology or applied kinesiology as a method of diagnosis) this hardly affects the popular demand for it. Why is this so? Does it matter?

Why do people cling to bogus procedures? Because they want to believe in magic and miracles. And many hate and fear doctors for phobic reasons. Some people who are well want to think themselves ill, or that they are suffering from interesting allergies, to shore up their view of themselves as more interesting people. Or simply because they are emotionally in need of feeling someone is caring for them. The one bit of good the alternative practitioners may do is to take troublesome patients off the hands of hard - pressed doctors. But obviously that has risks, since some of these patients may be ill with real diseases not at first detected.

Is there inevitably a conflict between a scientific approach to medicine and a loss of the holistic approach? Does it matter?

I don't think there's any reason for the holistic idea to be exclusive to alternative practice. We all know doctors who are good scientists and horrible to patients, and vice versa. Increasingly patients won't tolerate rude and unkind doctors, and tend to walk with their feet, if they can. Amongst younger doctors these days I'm much encouraged to hear them talk a great deal about the good they can do by treating people well, listening to them and treating them as a whole person, not as a body-part.

Clearly medical schools have become far more aware of this aspect of treatment. Also, increasing use of counsellors within GP practices can do much to help.

Will evidence - based medicine destroy the efficacy of placebo treatment in situations (e.g. multiple sclerosis) in which a good placebo is the best treatment on offer?

Evidence-based medicine is the only way forward and the government's new National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness ought to do much to weed out treatments that don't work and encourage those that do. It ought, in the end, to give people more, not less, confidence in their doctors.

The placebo effect is very powerful, and good doctors know how to use it to suit each of their patients. Some patients are scientifically minded, others just want to trust their doctor blindly. Oddly, in my experience, this has nothing to do with intelligence or education, but is an attitude of mind people adopt when faced with serious illness. Some rush out to read every book, others prefer trust and hope, or simply mentally avoid it altogether. But once we elevate the placebo effect above science, all is lost.


Are you for science and integrity in healthcare?



Already a member?


If you'd like to help us, please consider a donation.


yt logo rgb light

Mailing lists

If you are a member of the media or connected with a medical school or medical student organisation, please subscribe to our email list to receive occasional emails about press releases, our annual student competition and other news items we think might be of interest to you.
I agree with the Terms and Conditions