By David Tuller, DrPH
First, for those who might have missed it, here’s a conversation from This Week in Virology (TWiV), posted a few days ago. Dr. Racaniello and I discuss the CDC, NICE, Esther Crawley’s ethically challenged behavior, the CMRC, and other stuff.
Second, earlier today, I sent the following e-mail to Sir Andrew Dillon, the NICE chief executive:
Dear Sir Andrew:
I would like to congratulate NICE on its decision to pursue a full update of CG53, the CFS/ME guidance, rather than accept the surveillance report’s recommendation to leave it as is. The Guidance Executive made the right call, based on the current science—and given the international controversy over PACE trial and other CBT/GET trials. In NICE’s announcement, the list of concerns about the 2007 guidance was a fair accounting of what has troubled people for years and led to the outpouring of stakeholder comments opposed to the initial recommendation.
The decision to pursue a full update leaves some unanswered questions. Given that the new guidance might not be available until 2020, I am hoping you or someone else at NICE can shed light on these issues. The first involves the official status of the current guidance. The second involves references to CFS/ME elsewhere within NICE that do not appear to be aligned with the decision to fully update the guidance.
1) What is the official status now of CG53? Is it considered “provisional” or on stand-by in some way? Or does it remain fully in force? In other words, if National Health Service clinics and doctors claim to be following the “NICE guidance” for CFS/ME, do they also have an obligation to inform patients that the current version has been deemed no longer fit for purpose and is undergoing a “full update”? If these clinics and doctors prescribe CBT and/or GET, citing NICE as evidence and support, do they now have an obligation to explain that the effectiveness of these two treatments is under serious question?
2) The decision to pursue a “full update” suggests that NICE has joined the international scientific community in questioning whether psychological and behavioral approaches are appropriate for this illness—especially given the extensive evidence of physiological dysfunction. Does that mean NICE will reconsider other references to CFS/ME in agency documents? So far, patients and advocates have noted two sets of references to CFS/ME that do not appear to reflect the updated NICE position on CG53 and the illness itself.
One involves a NICE initiative called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. According to the IAPT site, NICE is working with NHS England on the program. IAPT is designed to “assess digitally enabled therapies for anxiety, depression and medically unexplained symptoms which offer the potential to expand these services further.”
Chronic fatigue syndrome is included in the list of thirteen conditions identified by “the NICE expert IAPT panel” as appropriate targets for interventions developed through this program. The IAPT site indicates that these interventions need to be consistent with NICE guidance. The site then refers readers to CG53 but makes no mention that this guidance is undergoing a full update.
Why is chronic fatigue syndrome still listed under the IAPT program? Does the Guidance Executive agree that it should be removed, since it is not a psychological or psychiatric disorder and the use of CBT and GET is very much under question? If it is not removed from under the auspices of IAPT, does that mean NICE intends to encourage the development of digital methods of delivering CBT and GET to people with CFS/ME, even as the guidance itself undergoes a full update?
Is the Guidance Executive aware that inclusion of CFS/ME in the IAPT program creates enormous concern among patients and advocates specifically because it suggests NICE might adopt or endorse some version of FITNET-NHS? That is the trial in which Professor Esther Crawley is examining the delivery of online CBT to children, based on the purported success of earlier Dutch research. Is the Guidance Executive aware that, as with the PACE trial, critics (including me) have documented serious methodological flaws in both the Dutch FITNET study and Professor Crawley’s own work in this field?
A second set of references to chronic fatigue syndrome is in a recent draft guideline on “suspected neurological conditions”—essentially, a primer on the symptoms and signs that might indicate a neurological condition and trigger a referral to specialist care. NICE published the draft in August and sought stakeholder comments. In its stakeholder submission, Forward ME noted that the draft guideline includes several unfortunate references to chronic fatigue syndrome as being a “functional” symptom or disorder.
As the draft guideline itself explains: “Functional symptoms are complaints that are not primarily explained based on physical or physiological abnormalities. They are likely to have an emotional basis. They may mimic neurological disorders.” The draft guideline suggests, for example, that “concentration difficulties” do not warrant referral to a neurologist if these difficulties are “associated with chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.”
Psychiatrists and other adherents of the biopsychosocial field have long classified chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other conditions involving so-called “medically unexplained symptoms” as functional somatic syndromes or disorders. Given the current effort to revamp the CFS/ME guidance and the significant evidence of actual physiological dysfunctions, does NICE feel comfortable at this point describing the illness elsewhere as a “functional” symptom that is “not primarily” organic in nature but is “likely to have an emotional basis”?
Thank you, Sir Andrew. I look forward to your response. –