An independent charity: for science and integrity in healthcare

Why is evidence so important?

After all, for thousands of years physicians used all sorts of remedies some of which, like acupuncture, are still in use.

The answer is: because any medical intervention can cause harm or even kill. It can do so actively — by poisoning or injuring for example — or passively, such as distracting people from seeking proper medical attention, sometimes until it is too late.

What do we mean by evidence?

Until recently the life expectancy for most people was little better than in medieval times. At first people thought disease was a punishment from the gods. Then they believed there were disturbances in invisible force fields (eastern tradition) or in four supposed ‘humours’ (western tradition) so that patients were pierced, bled or made to vomit. For thousands of years physicians probably killed more people than they cured. The age of enlightenment accelerated the progress of logical inquiry into disease – what we now call scientific medicine. Old suppositions were challenged, and new ideas were systematically tested. People grasped the need for hygiene and began to test medicines to see which ones really worked. Progress was so dramatic that infant death is now rare, most infections can be conquered and severe injuries can be repaired. People are living far longer and more healthily than ever before.

But some doctors and therapists still cling to old beliefs. Insistence on evidence-based medicine (EBM) only became public policy in advanced countries over the last two decades. Some conventional medical interventions have a poor record of success. Pharmaceutical companies are prone to exaggerate (and sometimes even cheat). A few doctors are conmen; others set up private clinics to cash in on people’s gullibility and lack of knowledge of medical matters.

And outside the realm of qualified physicians and surgeons there are thousands of commercial companies and tens of thousands of individual therapists promising complementary or alternative treatments, most of which are based on old myths and daft fads. Much of it is well-meaning but quackery is also a multibillion pound business.

How can HealthWatch help?

There are now several agencies which challenge conventional medicine. In Britain NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) has a formal role in checking what works and what is cost-effective for the NHS. The European Medicines Agency, based in London, scientifically evaluates medicines developed by pharmaceutical companies for use in the European Union. And there are charities like Sense About Science which help expose pseudoscience and false claims. HealthWatch is a ginger group, seeking to catch the lies, deliberate misrepresentations and unintentional falsehoods that fall through the nets — and unfortunately the nets have quite a few holes. HealthWatch is a voluntary group of professionals, including scientists and qualified clinicians as well as lay experts that help expose false or unproven claims. HealthWatch promotes medical and nursing training to help students to distinguish facts from presumption. And HealthWatch offers the media technical guidance on what are frequently specialist issues.

What does HealthWatch do?

We seek to persuade and influence the public and healthcare professionals both directly and through the media. We publish a newsletter four times a year. This is circulated to the media and to our members. We offer the media a telephone helpline and a website upon which they can rely as a source of information on many health-related subjects. We have a series of position papers in which one of our members or supporters who is an expert on a particular subject prepares a paper which we discuss and then issue as HealthWatch policy.

Why would I want to join?

If you care about honesty and healthcare, if you are upset when people who are vulnerable because of illness are taken in by people peddling lies and half-truths, please join us We especially seek journalists, medical and nursing and midwifery students and other young medical professionals, although an equal number of our members come from other professions. You will be in the company of a small but influential group of people in an organisation whose founders include Nobel prize-winners.

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