Trial By Error: A Non-COVID Post about KCL’s Rejection of My FOI Request

By David Tuller, DrPH

In the days before coronavirus was everything, I was writing about a major study of cognitive behavior therapy for irritable bowel syndrome. The study tested telephone-delivered cognitive behavior therapy, web-based CBT against treatment-as-usual for IBS symptom severity and other more generic domains.

Although the pre-COVID era feels like ancient history already, my last post on the IBS study was on February 24th–not much more than a month ago. On March 9th–the day I was supposed to be arriving in Bristol to attend the CFS/ME Research Collaborative conference–I received a response from King’s College London to a freedom of information request I’d sent. I wanted some details about a licensing deal for the web-based CBT program that the university had signed with a San Francisco-based start-up, Mahana Therapeutics.

In the study, the web-based program showed no clinically significant benefits over treatment-as-usual in reducing symptom severity. Yet Mahana Therapeutics has hyped the symptom severity findings and hailed the reported results as “dramatic” and “potentially game-changing.” These claims are ridiculous. They are not supported by the study data.

Not surprisingly, King’s College London cited commercial reasons to reject my request for more information about this questionable deal. I have pasted the letter in below.

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Dear David,

Request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”)

Further to your recent request for information held by King’s College London, I am writing to confirm that the requested information is held by the university.

Your request

We received your information request on 27th January 2020 and have treated it as a request for information made under section 1(1) of the Act.

You requested the following information:

1. The amount Mahana Therapeutics has paid to license the intervention and for how long.

2. The proportion of the money paid by Mahana Therapeutics that will be received by the researchers.

3. How much the National Health Service will have to pay for each patient who receives the intervention.

4. A copy of the agreement with personal information removed.

Our response

1.-4. The university has withheld the information under the following exemption: Section 43. The University would like to draw attention to the timing of this request being pivotal to the use of S43(2). The University recognises that, with the passing of time, the sensitivity of the information withheld under these exemptions is likely to decrease and allow the University to revaluate its response:

Section 43(2)

Section 43(2) provides for information to be exempt from disclosure where disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person. The University holds that, due to the highly competitive nature of securing licensing agreements and the recent nature of this agreement, the information contained in the agreement and its related costings, are still commercially sensitive.

Universities are required to operate in a highly competitive market with other HEPs and, if disclosed, details about deal structure, development plan and Mahana’s commercial intentions would be likely to damage the university’s future prospects of securing such funding.

Therefore, although the University recognises the inherent public interest in accountability through the transparency of the licensing process, the effect in this case would be likely to prejudice the university’s commercial interests. There is significant public interest in the university being able to maintain sources of income other than public funding. The public interest then favours the withholding of this information at the present time.

This completes the university’s response to your information request.

[The rest is about my right to appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt, PhD 8 April 2020, 2:31 am

    Except that I have no energy, my response would be complete fury – and escalation to the next higher level of supervision of this person/department, followed, appropriately, by getting the media involved.

    Hiding behind this is ridiculous.

    The current pandemic is in the way – but I hope you can pursue this until someone answers properly.

  • CT 8 April 2020, 3:17 am

    This lack of transparency is disgraceful, and especially so when taxpayers’ money is seemingly to be used to keep patients with bowel problems out of secondary care while a sizeable percentage go misdiagnosed. From experience, some UK university hospital gastroenterologists are incapable of diagnosing Crohn’s disease when the case doesn’t come across as ‘textbook’. They can hardly be blamed though when they are being taught to default to ‘MUS’ / ‘IBS’ in more difficult cases. This represents a dumbing down of medicine to tick-box diagnosis while patients continue to suffer. Key diagnostic skills are being lost because medics are prepared to mindlessly believe whatever the psychologists and psychiatrists tell them in order to tick their own ‘mental health awareness’ box.

  • Scott Simpson 8 April 2020, 7:08 am

    “…the effect in this case would be likely to prejudice the university’s commercial interests. There is significant public interest in the university being able to maintain sources of income…”

    Profiting from pain.

  • Debbie Smith 8 April 2020, 7:55 am

    “There is significant public interest in the university being able to maintain sources of income…”
    SO…. all the money will be going to the Uni will it?

  • Wendy Boutilier 8 April 2020, 9:04 am

    Their reply invites the question ‘what are they hiding’. They are repeating the same scenario the Authors of PACE used.

  • steve hawkins 12 April 2020, 8:17 pm

    So why isn’t this declared under conflicts of interest in the paper?
    Can’t have it both ways.