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Friday, 17 October 2014

Why should the anti-scientific sit on science committees?

Michael Mullaney: "strains on the NHS budget cannot be
resolved by treating serious illnesses with herbal remedies."
It seems rather absurd that I should have to make this obvious statement.

However, there appear to be those who take a different line.

Conservative health committee member David Tredinnick MP has this week suggested that the NHS should treat patients with herbal remedies, astrology and homeopathy in a quest to drive down costs.

He explained to Channel 4 News that "in some cultures astrology is part of healthcare because they need to have a voice and I've got up and said that...but I also think we can reduce the bill by using a whole range of alternative medicine including herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy.
 
Tredinnick has estimated that five per cent of the NHS budget could be saved in this way, although what precise calculations he has used were not disclosed. He has previously expressed interest in allowing astrology to replace more "conventional" NHS treatments, telling the House of Commons in July
that "I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier."

The MP is known to be a long-term advocate of alternative medicine, although oddly enough is also a member of the all-party Science and Technology Committee. Fortunately Tredinnick's rather eccentric beliefs say more about himself than they do the Conservative Party, but it does raise questions as to why someone with such anti-scientific views is sitting on scientific committees.

I don't doubt Tredinnick's sincerity when he insists that "in future we [should] stop looking just at increasing the supply of drugs and consider the way that complementary and alternative medicine can reduce the demand for drugs, reduce pressures on the health service, increase patient satisfaction, and make everyone in this country happier." He clearly believes this. The difficulty I have is that when a serving member of Commons committees on health and science makes such statements, it is more than embarrassing for parliament and for the cause of evidence-led treatment. And, in this case, he's simply wrong.

I spent most of my adult life working in the NHS, including mental health services. I will not deny that there is a need for delivering holistic approaches towards patient care that take into account their personal and spiritual beliefs. There is also a need to facilitate better availability of treatments other than medication, especially in the field of mental health. The answer is not always to dispense more drugs. However, this is not based on some oddball plan to deliver costs reductions, but to create an NHS that is more responsive to patient need. Moreover, it is evidence-based and follows the lead of academic research looking at providing more preventative, rather than reactive, treatments.

The scientific basis for homeopathy is virtually non-existent and for Tredinnick's projected savings to be realised it would require "alternative medicine" not only to be effective but in demand by patients. I suspect that David Tredinnick has not spent 17 years of his life working within the NHS, so I hope he will trust my experience when I suggest that patients would be far "happier" if they were treated more quickly - and with greater dignity and respect - than they would if they were to be given an appointment with an astrological therapist.

NHS treatments should naturally continue to evolve and adapt, following scientific advances, to deliver the best possible care for patients. It is not so much Tredinnick's ridiculous call for herbs, homeopathy and horoscopes that I find offensive, but the fact that someone who is a member of both the Commons Health Committee and the Science and Technology Committee sees fit to make pronouncements that undermine scientific rigour and evidence-based approaches in favour of a personally held dogmatic stance.

It is true that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt also has an unscientific belief in the powers of homeopathy, but his championing of alternative medicine stops there. Tredinnick's continuing missions to regulate Chinese herbalists (and in doing so give them professional recognition) and his often-quoted reference to the alleged fact that he knew of "a psychiatric hospital that doubled its staff at full-moon" (it is, of course, entirely untrue) suggest that perhaps it's time he was reigned in. Speeches in parliament referring to the "fact" that blood does not clot under a full moon hardly give him much credibility with which to speak on health issues.

As far as I know, Tredinnick has not yet given evidence of the role of werewolves in hypogycaemia or the connections between fairies and cerebro-vascular accidents, but there is as much evidence for these as there are his plethora of other health claims.

Rather odd and eccentric people are all good and well, and there is a place for them in public life, but for the Conservative Party to appoint someone with these views to committees of such responsibility seems either absurd or some kind of unfunny joke. Health and science are not laughing matters, and the aims of the respective committees should not be undermined by those sitting on them. It's like having the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sitting on a committee promoting atheistic humanism.

This naturally raises questions about how MPs are selected to serve on committees. As someone who is naturally pro-science and supportive of evidence-based approaches - especially on health issues - I find it an affront to democracy that while MPs are accountable to the public, committees are less directly accountable. Some serious rethinking of the relationship between committees, parliament and the civil service - and the way in which appointments are made - is overdue and patently necessary.

If the Conservatives are serious about keeping Bosworth, they perhaps should consider having a word with Tredinnick about his tendency to undermine scientific approaches from within the Science and Technology Committee. His contributions are becoming more unpredictable and unreasonable, and his appointment to these committees has seen an increase in such proclamations. Tredinnick has been the Conservative MP for Bosworth since 1987, but faced a tough challenge from Liberal Democrat Michael Mullaney in 2010 and his growing reputation as a pro-quackery eccentric is unlikely to help him.

Mullaney, who will again be conesting the seat in 2015, is understandably focused on his own constituency. ""People in Hinckley and Bosworth want an MP who will stand up for them on the important issues of jobs and services. Our current MP spends his time telling doctors not to operate on full moons, advising GPs to consult people's astrology charts when they come for treatments and suggests that scientists objecting to widespread use of Chinese Herbal medicines to cure serious illnesses are racially motivated."

Mullaney added: "At a time when the pressures facing the NHS are again under the spotlight, his answer to the strains on the NHS budget is to treat serious illness with herbal medicines and other ineffective and unproven methods. It's illogical.

 
"He has been MP for Bosworth for 27 years - this is far too long and it's about time he was thrown out by the voters next May!"

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