Here are the latest updates on HealthWatch projects and people. Read on for bitesize news items on events, new publications from our members and award winners, our contributions to public consultations, webinar catchups, and HealthWatch's Private Eye debut!
We are 30! Celebrating with live "Naughty Numbers" event with David Spiegelhalter
At HealthWatch's 30th birthday event, one of the world’s leading statisticians explained the figures that will help, for good or ill, to shape our destiny. David Spiegelhalter, Chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, Centre for Mathematical Sciences, University of Cambridge, England, spoke on “Trustworthy communication of risk and evidence: the battle against naughty numbers in the news” at a celebratory in-person event at the Medical Society of London on Tuesday July 27th 2021.
The 80 tickets for the free in-person event were snapped up within days, but the event was also live-streamed for remote viewing - a further 40 registered to watch Professor Spiegelhalter's 25-minute talk. For those who missed it, a recording has been uploaded to the HealthWatch YouTube channel (subscribe now and check out our past events), or read a lightly edited transcript on our website.
For this special year in HealthWatch's history we have awarded two HealthWatch Awards. Professor Spiegelhalter is recognised for a lifetime achievement of clearly communicating facts about health risks to the public. At our AGM in October we will make a further presentation to his joint award winner, Christina Pagel, mathematician and professor of operational research at University College London, for her contribution to public understanding of issues during the Covid-19 pandemic.
HealthWatch investigation hits the pages of Private Eye
"Quack Team" was the title of a Private Eye report published 26th May, featuring HealthWatch trustee Les Rose's investigations into the Charity Commission's inaction over the questionable and possibly dangerous practices of some registered health charities. An earlier issue of the satirical news magazine had reported on a heavy-handed nine-month Charity Commission investigation into a small charity that exposes neglect and abuse in care homes. So the Private Eye reporter was particularly keen to note that the Commission has, by contrast, "for years batted away complaints about charities promoting lucrative unproven 'remedies' for health conditions, including cancer."
The Eye reports that HealthWatch has identified dozens of alternative medicine charities making misleading health claims, and that detailed complaints have been filed on 16 of them. Finally, we have an outcome on one: the Charity Commission says that it has at last decided to remove the Gerson Support Group - whose "cancer treatment" includes an extreme diet and massive doses of vitamins plus coffee enemas - from its register of charities, 21 months after Les Rose's complaint. "Strangely, in October 2019 the Commission's CEO and legal head both stated in public that they did not have the power to remove charities. Confused? So am I," commented Les.
STOP PRESS: At the time of writing, despite their assurances, the Charity Commission has still not removed the Gerson Support Group’s charity registration. The Gerson Support Group still runs a private Facebook group and private website.
HealthWatch Student Prize
The 2021 HealthWatch Student Prize for assessment of clinical trial protocols has closed for another year with some excellent entries. You can read about this year's winners on our website, and we are delighted to have had a good spread of awards across students of nursing and midwifery as well as medicine.
Successful contribution to report on private fertility treatments
In the spring of 2020 HealthWatch contributed to a public consultation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on private fertility clinics. In June 2021 the CMA published its report, and the Advertising Standards Authority, in consultation with the CMA, has issued an Enforcement Notice to clinics, here. Dr Roger Fisken, who co-ordinates HealthWatch's consultation responses, was pleased to report that both documents contain comments and advice that are in line with what HealthWatch had contributed.
The CMA has also produced a written report for patients, entitled: "Fertility treatment: A guide to your consumer rights" and produced a two-minute YouTube video with brief advice for prospective parents considering private fertility treatments. "On the whole I think the CMA has taken a useful step with these reports, though a lot remains to be done. I think that our contribution to this issue has definitely been worthwhile," said Dr Fisken.
Forthcoming consultation: Research Reproducibility and Integrity
Honour for Nick Ross, HealthWatch's president
Nick Ross, president and founder of HealthWatch has been awarded a CBE in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours in recognition of his lifetime's work in broadcasting, charity and crime prevention. The former CrimeWatch presenter dedicated the honour to the crime science institute founded in memory of his late co-presenter Jill Dando, who was murdered in 1999. Ross co-founded HealthWatch in 1988 with a small group of journalists and health professionals, including the breast cancer surgeon Michael Baum. As well as being a household name for his broadcasting, Nick Ross is closely involved with a range of initiatives in medical ethics, and has played a leading role in social action campaigns, most notably crime prevention, road safety and fire safety.
Lasting allure of "phoney medicine"
A Financial Times article by a past HealthWatch Award winner is now free online and will interest our readers. In "Why phoney medicine has such lasting allure", our 2012 winner, Tim Harford of BBC Radio 4's "More or Less", talks about treatments ranging from the speculative to "pure quackery". He explores the regulator's tightrope between safety and over-caution, and asks why demand continues to be so strong for products that fail to deliver.
Health research - fraudulent until proven otherwise?
How much is public health impacted by fake research and the perverse incentives to produce it? Significantly it seems, and the evidence was laid out in a recent webinar by experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The one-hour 15 minute recording of this shocking exposé about invented data and "zombie trials" is now on the Cochrane YouTube channel, but if you haven't time to watch there is a detailed report in a recent BMJ Opinion penned by our 2004 HealthWatch Award winner, Richard Smith. Read and despair.
Defamation: how-to and how-not-to
This issue's prize for the most valuable hour spent webinar-watching must go to the Good Law Project who ran a compelling session on how to speak truth to power without putting your life savings on the line. Their 11th May panel "Defamation: a guide for activists" covered how to protect yourself when publishing articles or social media posts that might leave you vulnerable to the threat of libel proceedings, and untangled the complexity of defences to defamation – in particular the “public interest defence” – and how to make them work in your favour. The full recording is available on YouTube and is accompanied by a free seven-page downloadable pdf guide "Defamation: the basics".
Exposing a scientific scandal
In this fascinating YouTube recording, Glasgow psychiatrist Anthony Pelosi describes his battle to expose a historical science scandal: the psychologist Hans Eysenck famously purported to show that certain personality types were linked with a higher risk of cancer and heart disease, but scholars later identified errors and suspected data manipulation in his work, and subsequent research has not been able to replicate the results. The one hour and 40 minute recording of "Personality and fatal diseases; exposing a scientific scandal of Hans Eysenck" has been made available by the early-career researcher-led RIOT Science Club.
Step up, Jack Lawrence, London medical student
Concerns raised by an evidence-spotting medical student have played a part in the retraction of a major study into a drug being controversially promoted for treating Covid-19. Jack Lawrence, doing a masters degree, found his university assignment turned into a comprehensive investigation into an apparent scientific fraud. The study in question suggested that the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin is effective against the virus, but Jack suspected some of the study text might have been plagiarized, and had concerns over the data. His letters to the study's lead author went unanswered, and now the study has been withdrawn due to “ethical concerns”, says The Guardian.
Expressions of concern campaign
A new international campaign encourages evidence enthusiasts to flag examples of poor science for a $1000 prize. Restoring Invisible or Abandoned Trials (RIAT) is an initiative of the University of Baltimore, Maryland, USA to tackle bias in the health research literature resulting from misreporting or nonreporting of clinical trials. They want volunteers to write "Expressions of concern" letters to publicly register any serious concerns about clinical trials - and the RIAT experts are happy to lend their support. It is an ideal exercise for students, post-docs and trainee researchers, and the results of the letters will be tracked on the RIAT website. Check out the details here and get writing!
Covid conspiracy theories - a new guide
The charity Sense About Science has developed a short guide, Talking about Covid Conspiracy. It results from a project led by Peter Knight at the University of Manchester, under UK Research and Innovation Covid-19 funding, which included workshops with people who were either inclined to believe conspiracy theories or had been involved in difficult discussions about them. The new guide delves into how people prefer to be engaged during these conversations and offers suggestions at how to have better, more constructive conversations on the topic. The seven-page pdf is free to download.