By David Tuller, DrPH
The Countess of Mar, a well-known advocate for ME/CFS patients in the House of Lords, has received a negative response to her request for the names of the experts involved in the review of the NICE guideline for CFS/ME. The ME Association has not yet received a response related to the same question, nor have I. But the response to the countess indicates that the process is proceeding with a lack of full transparency.
Here’s the response from the Department of Health:
“The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) routinely consults a range of topic experts as part of its surveillance review process. NICE is currently consulting on a review proposal for its clinical guideline on the diagnosis and management of chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis. NICE does not routinely publish the names of topic experts as they are not part of the decision making [sic] process for the surveillance review.”
This answer is of course unsatisfactory. The last sentence is the operative one, so let’s deconstruct it. In the first part of the sentence, NICE is telling us that it does not routinely publish the names of topic experts. But just because it doesn’t routinely do something is not necessarily relevant to whether it should take this step now. Perhaps no one has asked for these names before. Presumably the development or review of most guidelines is not so controversial as this particular one for CFS/ME. (The patient-preferred name for the illness, and the most appropriate one, is of course just ME, without the CFS tacked on.)
It is also not routine that more than 15,000 people sign petitions expressing serious dissatisfaction with existing clinical guidelines. But that’s how many have put their names to the petition launched by the ME Association. That’s a huge number of unhappy patients and advocates; NICE would be well-advised not to ignore them. Perhaps the strict adherence to routine measures—like not disclosing the names of topic experts involved in the process—should be reconsidered in the current urgent context. (The petition drive closed today to coincide with the deadline for the stakeholder comments on the NICE guidelines.)
The second part of the sentence explains the purported reason for not sharing the topic expert names: they are not part of the decision-making process. First of all, what does that mean? Given that topic experts have been consulted in this instance, it is bizarre to read that they are “not part of the decision-making process”? Is their advice then ignored completely? Are they just a fig leaf to create the appearance of consultation while NICE does what it wants? If their advice is reviewed and considered rather than tossed right in the trash, why does the statement declare that they are not part of the decision-making process?
Perhaps the statement means that the topic experts are not officially in the room or on the conference call when the final approval is made. But even if that were the case, why would that mean their names should be kept from the public? Is the development process of NICE guidelines an official state secret that demands utmost protection?
And if the topic experts are not involved in the decision-making, as the statement asserts, then what exactly is their function? And who are the people involved in making the decision? Are they themselves experts, or just functionaries listening to others? Is it the group that originally developed the 2007 guideline? That group includes Professor Esther Crawley [Correction–see below], a close colleague of the PACE authors-—so that’s not a particularly good sign. Given the enormous impact of these guidelines, it is imperative that the process be conducted as openly as possible—which, given the response to the Countess of Mar’s question, is so far not the case.
Correction, July 24th: In the initial post, I mistakenly wrote Professor Trudie Chalder.