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Michael Guthrie – DC's Improbable Science

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Michael Guthrie

The Health Professions Council (HPC) is yet another regulatory quango.

The HPC’s strapline is

“Working with health professionals to protect the public”

At present the HPC regulates; Arts therapists, biomedical scientists, chiropodists/podiatrists, clinical scientists, dietitians, occupational therapists, operating department practitioners, orthoptists, paramedics, physiotherapists, prosthetists/orthotists, radiographers and speech & language therapists.

These are thirteen very respectable jobs. With the possible exception of art therapists, nobody would doubt for a moment that they are scientific jobs, based on evidence. Dietitians, for example, are the real experts on nutrition (in contrast to “nutritional therapists” and the like, who are part of the alternative industry).  That is just as well because the ten criteria for registration with the HPC say that aspirant groups must have

“Practise based on evidence of efficacy”

But then came the Pittilo report, about which I wrote a commentary in the Times, and here, A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor, and here.

Both the Pittilo report, the HPC, and indeed the Department of Health itself (watch this space), seem quite unable to grasp the obvious fact that you cannot come up with any sensible form of regulation until after you have decided whether the ‘therapy’ works or whether it is so much nonsense.

In no sense can “the public be protected” by setting educational standards for nonsense.  But this obvioua fact seems to be beyond the intellectual grasp of the quangoid box-ticking mentality.

That report recommended that the HPC should regulate also Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners. Even more absurdly, it recommended degrees in these subjects, just at the moment that those universities who run them are beginning to realise that they are anti-scientific subjects and closing down degrees in them.

How could these three branches of the alternative medicine industry possibly be eligible to register with the HPC when one of the criteria for registration is that there must be “practise based on evidence of efficacy”?

Impossible, I hear you say.  But if you said that, I fear you may have underestimated the capacity of the official mind for pure double-speak.

The HPC published a report on 11 September 2008, Regulation of Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners.

The report says

1. Medical herbalists, acupuncturists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners should be statutorily regulated in the public interest and for public safety reasons.

2. The Health Professions Council is appropriate as the regulator for these professions.

3. The accepted evidence of efficacy overall for these professions is limited, but regulation should proceed because it is in the public interest.

But the last conclusion contradicts directly the requirement for “practise based on evidence of efficacy”.  I was curious about how this contradiction
could be resolved so I sent a list of questions.  The full letter is here.

The letter was addressed to the president of the HPC, Anna van der Gaag, but with the customary discourtesy of such organisations, it was not answered by her but by Michael Guthrie, Head of Policy and Standards   He said

“Our Council considered the report at its meeting in July 2008 and decided that the regulation of these groups was necessary on the grounds of public protection. The Council decided to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for Health that these groups be regulated.
http://www.hpc-uk.org/assets/documents/100023FEcouncil_20080911_enclosure07.pdf
“.

This, of course, doesn’t answer any of my questions. It does not explain how the public is protected by insisting on formal qualifications, if the qualifications
happen to teach mythical nonsense. Later the reply got into deeper water.

“I would additionally add that the new professions criteria are more focused on the process and structures of regulation, rather than the underlying rationale for regulation – the protection of members of the public. The Council considered the group’s report in light of a scoring against the criteria. The criteria on efficacy was one that was scored part met. As you have outlined in your email (and as discussed in the report itself) the evidence of efficacy (at least to western standards) is limited overall, particularly in the areas of herbal medicines and traditional Chinese medicine. However, the evidence base is growing and there was a recognition in the report that the individualised approach to practice in these areas did not lend themselves to traditional RCT research designs.”

Yes, based on process and structures (without engaging the brain it seems). Rather reminiscent of the great scandal in UK Social Services. It is right in one respect though.

The evidence base is indeed growing, But it is almost all negative evidence. Does the HPC not realise that? And what about “at least by Western standards”?   Surely the HPC is not suggesting that UK health policy should be determined by the standards of evidence of Chinese herbalists?  Actually it is doing exactly that since its assessment of evidence was based on the Pittilo report in which the evidence was assessed (very badly) by herbalists.

One despairs too about the statement that

“there was a recognition in the report that the individualised approach to practice in these areas did not lend themselves to traditional RCT research designs”

Yes of course the Pittilo report said that, because it was written by herbalists! Had the HPC bothered to read Ben Goldacre’s column in the Guardian they would have realised that there is no barrier at all to doing proper tests. It isn’t rocket science, though it seems that it is beyond the comprehension of the HPC.

So I followed the link to try again to find out why the HPC had reached the decision to breach its own rules. Page 10 of the HPC Council report says

3. The occupation must practise based on evidence of efficacy This criterion covers how a profession practises. The Council recognizes the centrality of evidence-based practice to modern health care and will assess applicant occupations for evidence that demonstrates that:

  • Their practice is subject to research into its effectiveness. Suitable evidence would include publication in journals that are accepted as
    learned by the health sciences and/or social care communities
  • There is an established scientific and measurable basis for measuring outcomes of their practice. This is a minimum—the Council welcomes
    evidence of there being a scientific basis for other aspects of practice and the body of knowledge of an applicant occupation
  • It subscribes to the ethos of evidence-based practice, including being open to changing treatment strategies when the evidence is in favour
    of doing so.

So that sounds fine. Except that research is rarely published in “journals that are accepted as learned by the health sciences”. And of course most of the good evidence is negative anyway. Nobody with the slightest knowledge of the literature could possibly think that these criteria are satisfied by Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners.

So what does the HPC make of the evidence?  Appendix 2 tells us. It goes through the criteria for HPS registration.

“Defined body of knowledge:  There is a defined body of knowledge, although approaches to practice can vary within each area.”

There is no mention that the “body of knowledge” is, in many cases, nonsensical gobbledygook and, astonishingly this criterion was deemed to be “met”!.

This shows once again the sheer silliness of trying to apply a list of criteria without first judging whether the subject is based in reality,

Evidence of efficacy. There is limited widely accepted evidence of efficacy, although this could be partly explained by the nature of the professions in offering bespoke treatments to individual patients. This criterion is scored part met overall.

Sadly we are not told who deemed this criterion to be “part met”. But it does say that “This scoring has been undertaken based on the information outlined in the [Pittilo] report”. Since the assessment of evidence in that report was execrably bad (having been made by people who would lose their jobs if
they said anything negative). it is no wonder that the judgement is overoptimistic!
Did the HPC not notice the quality of the evidence presented in the Pittilo report?   Apparently not.  That is sheer incompetence.

Nevertheless the criterion was not “met”, so they can’t join HPC, right?   Not at all. The Council simply decided to ignore its own rules.

On page 5 of the Council’s report we see this.

The Steering Group [Pittilo] argues that a lack of evidence of efficacy should not prevent regulation but that the professions should be encouraged and funded to strengthen the evidence base (p.11, p. 32, p.34).

This question can be a controversial area and the evidence base of these professions was the focus of some press attention following the report’s publication. An often raised argument against regulation in such circumstances is that it would give credibility in the public’s eyes to treatments that are not proven to be safe or efficacious.

This second point is dead right, but it is ignored. The Council then goes on to say

In terms of the HPC’s existing processes, a lack of ‘accepted’ evidence of efficacy is not a barrier to producing standards of proficiency or making decisions about fitness to practise cases.

This strikes me as ludicrous, incompetent, and at heart, dishonest.

There will be no sense in policy in this area until the question of efficacy is referred to NICE.  Why didn’t the HPC recommend that?  Why has it not been done?

One possible reason is that I discovered recently that, although there are two scientific advisers in the Department of Health,. both of them claim that it is “not their role” to give scientific advice in this area.  So the questions get referred instead to the Prince of Wales Foundation. That is no way to run a ship.

The fact of the matter is that the HPC, like so many other regulatory agencies, fails utterly to protect the public from fraudulent and incompetent practitioners. In fact it actually protects them, in the same way that the financial ‘regulators’ protected fraudulent bankers.  They all seem to think that ticking boxes and passing exams is an effective process. Even if the exams require you to memorise that amethysts “emit high Yin energy so transmuting lower energies and clearing and aligning energy disturbance as all levels of being”.