An independent charity for science and integrity in healthcare

Read the latest HealthWatch newsletter:  Issue 108, Autumn 2018

Sir Richard Doll receives HealthWatch award

The Fourth Annual HealthWatch Award was presented to Professor Sir Richard Doll OBE MD DSc FRS of the University of Oxford, at the HealthWatch Annual General Meeting on 14th October, in recognition of his 50 years of work at the highest level in clinical epidemiology.

It was Sir Richard who, in the 1950s, led the landmark research study of 34,000 male doctors which showed that people who smoked were significantly more likely to develop lung cancer. He has more recently studied links between vitamin D and the brittle bone condition osteoporosis.

The presentation of the HealthWatch award followed Sir Richard's fascinating talk, "Help and hindrance in epidemiology". The help, he said, came from GP's, who are highly cooperative when invited to give information for epidemiological studies. Patients are similarly willing - out of thousands of patients studied he recalled only one letter which asked how the scientists had obtained their information.

Employers, on the other hand, have a tendency to "lose" records of past employees who may have been exposed to dangerous materials such as asbestos or poison gases. He found that questions asked in the House often prompted renewed searching and the subsequent discovery of missing documents.

Fears about patient confidentiality can also hinder epidemiological research. A study which hoped to investigate the possibility of a link between road traffic accidents and tranquilising medication ran into difficulties when the police questioned the ethics of looking at details of patients' medical prescriptions.

The Department of Health have raised objections to anonymous HIV testing of blood samples routinely taken on hospital admission; and a study of the effect of natural radon emission on lung cancer was interrupted by a non-research-minded committee who insisted that they alone should be responsible for choosing the subjects for the trial.

Sir Richard's talk was beautifully delivered and provided an enjoyable and thought-provoking conclusion to this year's AGM.

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