Pressures faced by the NHS

The good news is that every day, the vast majority of the 63.7 million people eligible to use the NHS, don’t need to. And every day you don’t need to use the NHS, someone else benefits. Most people are very capable of looking after themselves most of the time, self-treating for minor ailments and knowing when and where to seek help for serious illness. 90 per cent of symptoms are self-treated but an estimated fifty-two million visits to general practice each year are still for conditions that would get better with time. Self-care is likely to improve further when those who want it are given access to and control over their medical records and data, and technology is better used to direct you to the right information when you need it. In the meantime, a friendly pharmacist can often save you a trip to the GP.

The bad news is that demand in many areas outstrips both the supply of services and the funding for them. Patients who need care are having to wait longer for it, and too many referrals are rejected as not urgent enough, when the NHS should be doing its utmost to prevent emergencies.

There is a very, very big mental illness iceberg out there and it’s showing no signs of melting.

Life is tough enough for NHS staff, but imagine what it’s like for these children and their carers who can’t get any care at all? The pattern of services struggling – or simply not being able to cope safely – with the demands placed on staff is common across the NHS. Waiting times are creeping up, emergency departments are overflowing, people struggle to get a GP appointment, services are being restricted and rationed and lots of people are having to fend for themselves.The technology and choices patients now face can be very complex, but the strength of the NHS lies in its humanity and the ethos that as a society we should pool our resources to care for and protect the most vulnerable.

The NHS is nearly always buckling under the demands placed on it, partly because it’s a victim of its own success. Improvements in public health, wealth and healthcare since the NHS was founded sixty-seven years ago have been stunning. In 1948, half the population died before the age of sixty-five. Now, the average life expectancy is over eighty. One in three children born today will live to one hundred, but one in four boys born in Glasgow still won’t make it to sixty-five. The UK is still a very unequal society, and the rich not only live fifteen years longer than the poor, but they have up to twenty years more healthy living. Life is very, very unfair, which is why we need to fight poverty and build the confidence, courage and resilience in our children to live well, as well as improve and fund the NHS. Those who pay for it most often use it least. It’s the badge of honour for living in a humane society.

And we nearly all need it eventually if we want help or treatment. One in two people in the UK will get cancer, one in three will get diabetes and nearly everyone will get heart disease. Many of these diseases will be contained rather than cured. Obesity appears unstoppable. Liver disease, kidney disease, lung disease, musculoskeletal disease, depression and anxiety are all on the increase. Mental illnesses cost the UK over £70 billion a year, one in three of us experiences mental health problems every year and one in three people over sixty-five will die with dementia. Many people with dementia live for many years, even if they haven’t been diagnosed and treated. Dementia alone already costs the economy more than cancer and heart disease put together.

These chronic diseases account for 70 per cent of the NHS budget, although many can be delayed if not prevented by a healthier lifestyle. Those with three or more incurable diseases are usually on multiple medications, the combined effects of which are unknown. Many older patients on multiple drugs struggle to take them properly, and there’s a delicate balance between benefit and harm. Loneliness is often a far bigger problem.

The NHS and social care system is crucially dependent on millions of unpaid volunteers and carers, and many very dedicated but poorly paid care workers. The round-the-clock pressures and responsibilities they face are huge. If carers went on strike, the NHS and social care service would collapse overnight. Keeping it all afloat is a massive, collaborative effort and we are far too reliant on institutionalized care, rather than supporting people in their homes.

More women give birth in hospital than need or want to be there, so those who really need to have hospital births don’t always get safe care. Far too many frail elderly patients, many with dementia, end up in acute hospitals, often the most frightening and disorientating place they can be. Far too many people with mental illness end up in police custody and far too many people die in hospital when they want to die at home. We can change this, if services join up, and patients and carers receive the right training and support. Having chemotherapy or dialysis at home can transform not just your healthcare but your whole life. It doesn’t happen nearly enough.

Fixing the NHS and social care system will not be quick or easy, even if we put more money in. In many instances, it would often be kinder to have less high-tech, expensive intervention than more. If all we ever did in the NHS was capture the ideas and feedback from frontline staff, patients and carers, and use it to continuously improve a stable system that everyone understood, the NHS would be out of sight as the world’s best. We have to spend every available penny supporting and joining up the frontline – the NHS is not about the bricks and mortar, it’s about mobilizing and motivating a brilliant workforce to serve patients and give you as much control as you want over your care. And to do that, you need to find your voice and we need to listen to you.

Research done by the Health Foundation, When Doctors and Patients Talk, found that NHS staff are often as anxious and fearful as you are during consultations. They are anxious and frightened of missing an important diagnosis, not being able to give patients what they are entitled to, not being able to practise the standards of care they’d like to, having to deal with justifiable anger, missing a target they have been ordered to hit, being asked to do something they do not feel competent to do, or having to look after so many patients in such a short space of time they just do not feel safe. The ever-present fear is that they simply cannot cope safely with the demand. Just as we shouldn’t blame people for being ill or old or overweight, we shouldn’t blame NHS staff for not being able to always provide the highest standards of care. Praise, kindness and understanding are much better motivators.

And there’s plenty to be thankful for. The Commonwealth Fund in America compares the health systems in eleven countries and ranks them according to eleven measures: quality of care, effective care, safe care, coordinated care, patient-centred care, access, cost-related problems, timeliness of care, efficiency, equity, and healthy lives. You might expect Austria, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland or America to thrash us. In fact, the 2014 ranking (based on 2011 data) puts the UK top of the healthcare table overall, and first in eight of the eleven categories. It came second in equity to Sweden, and third behind Switzerland and the Netherlands for timeliness of care. The NHS is far from perfect, but we should celebrate and publicize the amazing care it often gives, try to improve the good care it usually gives and quickly address the poor care it occasionally gives, so further harm is prevented.

To improve, the NHS needs to be simplified so that anyone can understand it. We pretend to distinguish between healthcare and social care, but it’s all ‘care’ and it should be joined into one care system, with those with the greatest need treated by one team with one named person responsible for coordinating your care. And we must all do everything we can to live well. In the NHS, the staff spend too much time diving into the river of illness, pulling people out and trying to put them back together that no-one has time to wander upstream and look at who’s pushing you in.

Media’s Marvellous Medicine

When it comes to our health, the media wields enormous influence over what we think. They tell us what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right and wrong, what we should and shouldn’t eat. When you think about it, that’s quite some responsibility. But do you really think that a sense of philanthropic duty is the driving force behind most of the health ‘news’ stories that you read? Who are we kidding? It’s all about sales, of course, and all too often that means the science plays second fiddle. Who wants boring old science getting in the way of a sensation-making headline?

When it comes to research – especially the parts we’re interested in, namely food, diet and nutrients – there’s a snag. The thing is, these matters are rarely, if ever, clear-cut. Let’s say there are findings from some new research that suggest a component of our diet is good for our health. Now academics and scientists are generally a pretty cautious bunch – they respect the limitations of their work and don’t stretch their conclusions beyond their actual findings. Not that you’ll think this when you hear about it in the media. News headlines are in your face and hard hitting. Fluffy uncertainties just won’t cut it. An attention-grabbing headline is mandatory; relevance to the research is optional. Throw in a few random quotes from experts – as the author Peter McWilliams stated, the problem with ‘experts’ is you can always find one ‘who will say something hopelessly hopeless about anything’ – and boom! You’ve got the formula for some seriously media-friendly scientific sex appeal, or as we prefer to call it, ‘textual garbage’. The reality is that a lot of the very good research into diet and health ends up lost in translation. Somewhere between its publication in a respected scientific journal and the moment it enters our brains via the media, the message gets a tweak here, a twist there and a dash of sensationalism thrown in for good measure, which leaves us floundering in a sea of half-truths and misinformation. Most of it should come with the warning: ‘does nothing like it says in the print’. Don’t get us wrong: we’re not just talking about newspapers and magazines here, the problem runs much deeper. Even the so-called nutrition ‘experts’, the health gurus who sell books by the millions, are implicated. We’re saturated in health misinformation.

Quite frankly, many of us are sick of this contagion of nutritional nonsense. So, before launching headlong into the rest of the book, take a step back and see how research is actually conducted, what it all means and what to watch out for when the media deliver their less-than-perfect messages. Get your head around these and you’ll probably be able to make more sense of nutritional research than most of our cherished health ‘gurus’.

Rule #1: Humans are different from cells in a test tube
At the very basic level, researchers use in-vitro testing, in which they isolate cells or tissues of interest and study them outside a living organism in a kind of ‘chemical soup’. This allows substances of interest (for example, a vitamin or a component of food) to be added to the soup to see what happens. So they might, for example, add vitamin C to some cancer cells and observe its effect. We’re stating the obvious now when we say that what happens here is NOT the same as what happens inside human beings. First, the substance is added directly to the cells, so they are often exposed to concentrations far higher than would normally be seen in the body. Second, humans are highly complex organisms, with intricately interwoven systems of almost infinite processes and reactions. What goes on within a few cells in a test tube or Petri dish is a far cry from what would happen in the body. This type of research is an important part of science, but scientists know its place in the pecking order – as an indispensable starting point of scientific research. It can give us valuable clues about how stuff works deep inside us, what we might call the mechanisms, before going on to be more rigorously tested in animals, and ultimately, humans. But that’s all it is, a starting point.

Rule #2: Humans are different from animals
The next logical step usually involves animal testing. Studying the effects of a dietary component in a living organism, not just a bunch of cells, is a big step closer to what might happen in humans. Mice are often used, due to convenience, consistency, a short lifespan, fast reproduction rates and a closely shared genome and biology to humans. In fact, some pretty amazing stuff has been shown in mice. We can manipulate a hormone and extend life by as much as 30%1. We can increase muscle mass by 60% in two weeks. And we have shown that certain mice can even regrow damaged tissues and organs.

So, can we achieve all of that in humans? The answer is a big ‘no’ (unless you happen to believe the X-Men are real). Animal testing might be a move up from test tubes in the credibility ratings, but it’s still a long stretch from what happens in humans. You’d be pretty foolish to make a lot of wild claims based on animal studies alone.

To prove that, all we need to do is take a look at pharmaceutical drugs. Vast sums of money (we’re talking hundreds of millions) are spent trying to get a single drug to market. But the success rate is low. Of all the drugs that pass in-vitro and animal testing to make it into human testing, only 11% will prove to be safe and effective enough to hit the shelves5. For cancer drugs the rate of success is only 5%5. In 2003, the President of Research and Development at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, John La Mattina, stated that ‘only one in 25 early candidates survives to become a prescribed medicine’. You don’t need to be a betting person to see these are seriously slim odds.

Strip it down and we can say that this sort of pre-clinical testing never, ever, constitutes evidence that a substance is safe and effective. These are research tools to try and find the best candidates to improve our health, which can then be rigorously tested for efficacy in humans. Alas, the media and our nutrition gurus don’t appear to care too much for this. Taking research carried out in labs and extrapolating the results to humans sounds like a lot more fun. In fact, it’s the very stuff of many a hard-hitting newspaper headline and bestselling health book. To put all of this into context, let’s take just one example of a classic media misinterpretation, and you’ll see what we mean.

Rule #3: Treat headlines with scepticism
Haven’t you heard? The humble curry is right up there in the oncology arsenal – a culinary delight capable of curing the big ‘C’. At least that’s what the papers have been telling us. ‘The Spice Of Life! Curry Fights Cancer’ decreed the New York Daily News. ‘How curry can help keep cancer at bay’ and ‘Curry is a “cure for cancer”’ reported the Daily Mail and The Sun in the UK. Could we be witnessing the medical breakthrough of the decade? Best we take a closer look at the actual science behind the headlines.

The spice turmeric, which gives some Indian dishes a distinctive yellow colour, contains relatively large quantities of curcumin, which has purported benefit in Alzheimer’s disease, infections, liver disease, inflammatory conditions and cancer. Impressive stuff. But there’s a hitch when it comes to curcumin. It has what is known as ‘poor bioavailability’. What that means is, even if you take large doses of curcumin, only tiny amounts of it get into your body, and what does get in is got rid of quickly. From a curry, the amount absorbed is so miniscule that it is not even detectable in the body.

So what were those sensational headlines all about? If you had the time to track down the academic papers being referred to, you would see it was all early stage research. Two of the articles were actually referring to in-vitro studies (basically, tipping some curcumin onto cancer cells in a dish and seeing what effect it had).

Suffice to say, this is hardly the same as what happens when you eat a curry. The other article referred to an animal study, where mice with breast cancer were given a diet containing curcumin. Even allowing for the obvious differences between mice and humans, surely that was better evidence? The mice ate curcumin-containing food and absorbed enough for it to have a beneficial effect on their cancer. Sounds promising, until we see the mice had a diet that was 2% curcumin by weight. With the average person eating just over 2kg of food a day, 2% is a hefty 40g of curcumin. Then there’s the issue that the curcumin content of the average curry/turmeric powder used in curry is a mere 2%. Now, whoever’s out there conjuring up a curry containing 2kg of curry powder, please don’t invite us over for dinner anytime soon.

This isn’t a criticism of the science. Curcumin is a highly bio-active plant compound that could possibly be formulated into an effective medical treatment one day. This is exactly why these initial stages of research are being conducted. But take this basic stage science and start translating it into public health advice and you can easily come up with some far-fetched conclusions. Let us proffer our own equally absurd headline: ‘Curry is a Cause of Cancer’. Abiding by the same rules of reporting used by the media, we’ve taken the same type of in-vitro and animal-testing evidence and conjured up a completely different headline. We can do this because some studies of curcumin have found that it actually causes damage to our DNA, and in so doing could potentially induce cancer.

As well as this, concerns about diarrhoea, anaemia and interactions with drug-metabolizing enzymes have also been raised. You see how easy it is to pick the bits you want in order to make your headline? Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger than just curcumin. It could just as easily be resveratrol from red wine, omega-3 from flaxseeds, or any number of other components of foods you care to mention that make headline news.

It’s rare to pick up a newspaper or nutrition book without seeing some new ‘superfood’ or nutritional supplement being promoted on the basis of less than rigorous evidence. The net result of this shambles is that the real science gets sucked into the media vortex and spat out in a mishmash of dumbed-down soundbites, while the nutritional messages we really should be taking more seriously get lost in a kaleidoscope of pseudoscientific claptrap, peddled by a media with about as much authority to advise on health as the owner of the local pâtisserie.

Rule #4: Know the difference between association and causation
If nothing else, we hope we have shown that jumping to conclusions based on laboratory experiments is unscientific, and probably won’t benefit your long-term health. To acquire proof, we need to carry out research that involves actual humans, and this is where one of the greatest crimes against scientific research is committed in the name of a good story, or to sell a product.

A lot of nutritional research comes in the form of epidemiological studies. These involve looking at populations of people and observing how much disease they get and seeing if it can be linked to a risk factor (for example, smoking) or some protective factor (for example, eating fruit and veggies). And one of the most spectacular ways to manipulate the scientific literature is to blur the boundary between ‘association’ and ‘causation’. This might all sound very academic, but it’s actually pretty simple.

Confusing association with causation means you can easily arrive at the wrong conclusion. For example, a far higher percentage of visually impaired people have Labradors compared to the rest of the population, so you might jump to the conclusion that Labradors cause sight problems. Of course we know better, that if you are visually impaired then you will probably have a Labrador as a guide dog. To think otherwise is ridiculous.

But apply the same scenario to the complex human body and it is not always so transparent. Consequently, much of the debate about diet and nutrition is of the ‘chicken versus egg’ variety. Is a low or high amount of a nutrient a cause of a disease, a consequence of the disease, or simply irrelevant?

To try and limit this confusion, researchers often use what’s known as a cohort study. Say you’re interested in studying the effects of diet on cancer risk. You’d begin by taking a large population that are free of the disease at the outset and collect detailed data on their diet. You’d then follow this population over time, let’s say ten years, and see how many people were diagnosed with cancer during this period. You could then start to analyse the relationship between people’s diet and their risk of cancer, and ask a whole lot of interesting questions. Did people who ate a lot of fruit and veggies have less cancer? Did eating a lot of red meat increase cancer? What effect did drinking alcohol have on cancer risk? And so on.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), which we refer to often in this book, is an example of a powerfully designed cohort study, involving more than half a million people in ten countries. These studies are a gold mine of useful information because they help us piece together dietary factors that could influence our risk of disease.

But, however big and impressive these studies are, they’re still observational. As such they can only show us associations, they cannot prove causality. So if we’re not careful about the way we interpret this kind of research, we run the risk of drawing some whacky conclusions, just like we did with the Labradors. Let’s get back to some more news headlines, like this one we spotted: ‘Every hour per day watching TV increases risk of heart disease death by a fifth’.

When it comes to observational studies, you have to ask whether the association makes sense. Does it have ‘biological plausibility’? Are there harmful rays coming from the TV that damage our arteries or is it that the more time we spend on the couch watching TV, the less time we spend being active and improving our heart health. The latter is true, of course, and there’s an ‘association’ between TV watching and heart disease, not ‘causation’.

So even with cohorts, the champions of the epidemiological studies, we can’t prove causation, and that’s all down to what’s called ‘confounding’. This means there could be another variable at play that causes the disease being studied, at the same time as being associated with the risk factor being investigated. In our example, it’s the lack of physical activity that increases heart disease and is also linked to watching more TV.

This issue of confounding variables is just about the biggest banana skin of the lot. Time and time again you’ll find nutritional advice promoted on the basis of the findings of observational studies, as though this type of research gives us stone cold facts. It doesn’t. Any scientist will tell you that. This type of research is extremely useful for generating hypotheses, but it can’t prove them.

Rule #5: Be on the lookout for RCTs (randomized controlled trials)
An epidemiological study can only form a hypothesis, and when it offers up some encouraging findings, these then need to be tested in what’s known as an intervention, or clinical, trial before we can talk about causality. Intervention trials aim to test the hypothesis by taking a population that are as similar to each other as possible, testing an intervention on a proportion of them over a period of time and observing how it influences your measured outcome.

The role of pharmacy in healthcare

Pharmacists are experts on the actions and uses of drugs, including their chemistry, their formulation into medicines and the ways in which they are used to manage diseases. The principal aim of the pharmacist is to use this expertise to improve patient care. Pharmacists are in close contact with patients and so have an important role both in assisting patients to make the best use of their prescribed medicines and in advising patients on the appropriate self-management of self-limiting and minor conditions. Increasingly this latter aspect includes OTC prescribing of effective and potent treatments. Pharmacists are also in close working relationships with other members of the healthcare team –doctors, nurses, dentists and others –where they are able to give advice on a wide range of issues surrounding the use of medicines.

Pharmacists are employed in many different areas of practice. These include the traditional ones of hospital and community practice as well as more recently introduced advisory roles at health authority/ health board level and working directly with general practitioners as part of the core, practice-based primary healthcare team. Additionally, pharmacists are employed in the pharmaceutical industry and in academia.

Members of the general public are most likely to meet pharmacists in high street pharmacies or on a hospital ward. However, pharmacists also visit residential homes (see Ch. 49), make visits to patients’own homes and are now involved in running chronic disease clinics in primary and secondary care. In addition, pharmacists will also be contributing to the care of patients through their dealings with other members of the healthcare team in the hospital and community setting.

Historically, pharmacists and general practitioners have a common ancestry as apothecaries. Apothecaries both dispensed medicines prescribed by physicians and recommended medicines for those members of the public unable to afford physicians’fees. As the two professions of pharmacy and general practice emerged this remit split so that pharmacists became primarily responsible for the technical, dispensing aspects of this role. With the advent of the NHS in the UK in 1948, and the philosophy of free medical care at the point of delivery, the advisory function of the pharmacist further decreased. As a result, pharmacists spent more of their time in the dispensing of medicines –and derived an increased proportion of their income from it. At the same time, radical changes in the nature of dispensing itself, as described in the following paragraphs, occurred.

In the early years, many prescriptions were for extemporaneously prepared medicines, either following standard ‘recipes’from formularies such as the British Pharmacopoeia (BP) or British Pharmaceutical Codex (BPC), or following individual recipes written by the prescriber (see Ch. 30). The situation was similar in hospital pharmacy, where most prescriptions were prepared on an individual basis. There was some small-scale manufacture of a range of commonly used items. In both situations, pharmacists required manipulative and time-consuming skills to produce the medicines. Thus a wide range of preparations was made, including liquids for internal and external use, ointments, creams, poultices, plasters, eye drops and ointments, injections and solid dosage forms such as pills, capsules and moulded tablets (see Chs 32–39). Scientific advances have greatly increased the effectiveness of drugs but have also rendered them more complex, potentially more toxic and requiring more sophisticated use than their predecessors. The pharmaceutical industry developed in tandem with these drug developments, contributing to further scientific advances and producing manufactured medical products. This had a number of advantages. For one thing, there was an increased reliability in the product, which could be subjected to suitable quality assessment and assurance. This led to improved formulations, modifications to drug availability and increased use of tablets which have a greater convenience for the patient. Some doctors did not agree with the loss of flexibility in prescribing which resulted from having to use predetermined doses and combinations of materials. From the pharmacist’s point of view there was a reduction in the time spent in the routine extemporaneous production of medicines, which many saw as an advantage. Others saw it as a reduction in the mystique associated with the professional role of the pharmacist. There was also an erosion of the technical skill base of the pharmacist. A look through copies of the BPC in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s will show the reduction in the number and diversity of formulations included in the Formulary section. That section has been omitted from the most recent editions. However, some extemporaneous dispensing is still required and pharmacists remain the only professionals trained in these skills.

The changing patterns of work of the pharmacist, in community pharmacy in particular, led to an uncertainty about the future role of the pharmacist and a general consensus that pharmacists were no longer being utilized to their full potential. If the pharmacist was not required to compound medicines or to give general advice on diseases, what was the pharmacist to do?

The need to review the future for pharmacy was first formally recognized in 1979 in a report on the NHS which had the remit to consider the best use and management of its financial and manpower resources. This was followed by a succession of key reports and papers, which repeatedly identified the need to exploit the pharmacist’s expertise and knowledge to better effect. Key among these reports was the Nuffield Report of 1986. This report, which included nearly 100 recommendations, led the way to many new initiatives, both by the profession and by the government, and laid the foundation for the recent developments in the practice of pharmacy, which are reflected in this book.

Radical change, as recommended in the Nuffield Report, does not necessarily happen quickly, particularly when regulations and statute are involved. In the 28 years since Nuffield was published, there have been several different agendas which have come together and between them facilitated the paradigm shift for pharmacy envisaged in the Nuffield Report. These agendas will be briefly described below. They have finally resulted in extensive professional change, articulated in the definitive statements about the role of pharmacy in the NHS plans for pharmacy in England (2000), Scotland (2001) and Wales (2002) and the subsequent new contractual frameworks for community pharmacy. In addition, other regulatory changes have occurred as part of government policy to increase convenient public access to a wider range of medicines on the NHS (see Ch. 4). These changes reflect general societal trends to deregulate the professions while having in place a framework to ensure safe practice and a recognition that the public are increasingly well informed through widespread access to the internet. For pharmacy, therefore, two routes for the supply of prescription only medicines (POM) have opened up. Until recently, POM medicines were only available on the prescription of a doctor or dentist, but as a result of the Crown Review in 1999, two significant changes emerged.

First, patient group directions (PGDs) were introduced in 2000. A PGD is a written direction for the supply, or supply and administration, of a POM to persons generally by named groups of professionals. So, for example, under a PGD, community pharmacists could supply a specific POM antibiotic to people with a confirmed diagnostic infection, e.g. azithromycin for Chlamydia.

Second, prescribing rights for pharmacists, alongside nurses and some other healthcare professionals, have been introduced, initially as supplementary prescribers and more recently, as independent prescribers.

The council of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB) decided that it was necessary to allow all members to contribute to a radical appraisal of the profession, what it should be doing and how to achieve it. The ‘Pharmacy in a New Age’consultation was launched in October 1995, with an invitation to all members to contribute their views to the council. These were combined into a subsequent document produced by the council in September 1996 called Pharmacy in a New Age: The New Horizon. This indicated that there was overwhelming agreement from pharmacists that the profession could not stand still.

The main output of this professional review was a commitment to take forward a more proactive, patient-centred clinical role for pharmacy using pharmacists’ skills and knowledge to best effect.

An overview of mental health

Mental illness continues to be one of the most misunderstood, mythologised and controversial of issues. Described for as long as human beings have been able to record thoughts and behaviours, it is at once a medical, social and at times political issue. It can lead to detention against one’s will and has its very own Act of Parliament, and yet we really know very little about it.

Societies through the ages have responded to this mystery by the locking up of people whose sometimes bizarre behaviour was deemed dangerous, unsuitable or just plain scandalous. Only within the relatively recent past have the tall, thick walls of the asylum been dismantled and those who remained institutionalised and hidden allowed out into the community.

Little wonder then that mental health and mental disorder remain misunderstood to most, and frightening to many. Recent reports suggest that stigma is on the decline (Time to Change 2014) but progress has been slow. Despite the best efforts of soap scriptwriters, high-profile celebrities ‘coming clean’ about mental illness, and the work of mental health charities and support groups in demystifying diagnoses such as depression, we still see and hear many examples of discrimination and myth.

Given the sheer ubiquity of mental illness throughout the world, the stigma and mystery is surprising. The most recent national survey confirms the now well-known statistic that just under one in four English adults are experiencing a diagnosable mental disorder at any one time (McManus et al. 2009). Depression is identified by the World Health Organization as the world’s leading cause of years of life lost due to disability (WHO 2009).

Relatively few of those experiencing mental health problems will come to the attention of a GP, let alone a mental health professional. This is especially so in the developing world where initiatives to develop local mental health interventions are gaining considerable ground after generations of cultural stigma and ignorance (WHO 2009). But even in parts of the world where people have ready access to medical help, many suffer alone rather than face the apparent shame of experiencing mental health problems.

Perhaps part of our reluctance to accept mental illness lies with difficulties determining mental health. We are made aware of factors that determine positive mental health. Connecting with people, being active, learning new things, acts of altruism and being aware of oneself (NHS 2014) have been evidenced as ways of promoting our well-being, but mental order remains rather more loosely defined than mental disorder.

So what are the systems used to categorise and define mental illness? In the United Kingdom, mental health professionals often refer to an ICD-10 diagnosis to refer to a patient’s condition. This is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) diagnostic manual, which lists all recognised (by WHO at least) diseases and disorders, including the category ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ (WHO 1992). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (better known as DSM-5) is more often used in the United States and elsewhere in the world (American Psychiatric Association 2013). These two sets of standards are intended to provide global standards for the recognition of mental health problems for both day-to-day clinical practice and clinical researchers, although the tools used by the latter group to measure symptoms often vary from place to place and can interfere with the ‘validity’ of results, or in other words the ability of one set of results to be compared with those from a different research team.

ICD-10 ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ lists 99 different types of mental health problem, each of which is further sub-divided into a variety of more precise diagnoses, ranging from the relatively common and well known (such as depression or schizophrenia) to more obscure diagnoses such as ‘specific developmental disorders of scholastic skills’.

The idea of using classification systems and labels to describe the highly complex vagaries of the human mind often meets with fierce resistance in mental health circles. The ‘medical model’ of psychiatry – diagnosis, prognosis and treatment – is essentially a means of applying the same scientific principles to the study and treatment of the mind as physical medicine applies to diseases of the body. An X-ray of the mind is impossible, a blood test will reveal nothing about how a person feels, and fitting a collection of psychiatric symptoms into a precise diagnostic category does not always yield a consistent result.

In psychiatry, symptoms often overlap with one another. For example, a person with obsessive compulsive disorder may believe that if they do not switch the lights on and off a certain number of times and in a particular order then a disaster will befall them. To most, this would appear a bizarre belief, to the extent that the inexperienced practitioner may label that person as ‘delusional’ or ‘psychotic’. Similarly, a person in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease may often experience many of the ‘textbook’ features of clinical depression, such as low mood, poor motivation and disturbed sleep. In fact, given the tragic and predictable consequences of dementia it is unsurprising that sufferers often require treatment for depression, particularly while they retain the awareness to know that they are suffering from a degenerative condition with little or no improvement likely.

Psychiatry may often be a less-than-precise science, but the various diagnostic terms are commonplace in health and social care and have at least some descriptive power, although it is also important to remember that patients or clients may experience a complex array of feelings, experiences or ‘symptoms’ that may vary widely with the individual over time and from situation to situation.

Defining what is (or what is not) a mental health problem is really a matter of degrees. Nobody could be described as having ‘good’ mental health every minute of every day. Any football supporter will report the highs and lows encountered on an average Saturday afternoon, and can easily remember the euphoria of an important win or the despondency felt when their team is thrashed six-nil on a cold, wet Tuesday evening. But this could hardly be described as a ‘mental health problem’, and for all but the most ardent supporters their mood will have lifted within a short space of time.

However, the same person faced with redundancy, illness or the loss of a close family member might encounter something more akin to a ‘problem’. They may experience, for example, anger, low mood, tearfulness, sleep difficulties and loss of appetite. This is a quite normal reaction to stressful life events, although the nature and degree of reaction is of course dependent on a number of factors, such as the individual’s personality, the circumstances of the loss and the support available from those around them at the time. In most circumstances the bereaved person will recover after a period of time and will return to a normal way of life without the need for medical intervention of any kind. On the other hand, many people will experience mental health problems serious enough to warrant a visit to their GP.

The majority of people with mental health problems are successfully assessed and treated by GPs and other primary care professionals, such as counsellors. The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme is a now well-established approach to treating mental health problems in the community. GPs can make an IAPT referral for depressed and/or anxious patients who have debilitating mental health issues but who don’t require more specialised input from a psychiatrist or community mental health nurse. Most people receiving help for psychological problems will normally be able to carry on a reasonably normal lifestyle either during treatment or following a period of recovery. A small proportion of more severe mental health issues will necessitate referral to a Community Mental Health Team (CMHT), with a smaller still group of patients needing in-patient admission or detention under the Mental Health Act.

Mental health is a continuum at the far end of which lies what professionals refer to as severe and enduring mental illness. This is a poorly defined category, but can be said to include those who suffer from severely debilitating disorders that drastically reduce their quality of life and that may necessitate long-term support from family, carers, community care providers, supported housing agencies and charities. The severe and enduring mentally ill will usually have diagnoses of severe depression or psychotic illness, and will in most cases have some degree of contact with mental health professionals.

Why Asians are more prone to Type 2 diabetes than Westerners

Thirty-four year-old Alan Phua is what you might describe as a typical male Chinese man. He exercises for three to five times a week in a country that places a high emphasis on healthy lifestyles. He also carefully observes what he eats and is strict about his diet.

Alan lives in Singapore. In addition to military service for the duration of two and a half years when they turn eighteen, citizens have annual reservist training for two weeks until they turn forty. Failing to meet targets for physical exercises such as chin ups, standing broad jumps, sit ups, shuttle runs and a 1.5 mile run means remedial physical training every few months until these standards are meet. But not all is negative though. Meeting or exceeding these targets is rewarded by financial incentives. In other words, living in Singapore as a male means there is a strong push to keep fit and maintain it.

The reasons for this are very clear. Singapore is a small country surrounded by two large neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia. Its population of five million citizens means that like Israel, it has to rely on a citizen reservist force should the threat of war ever loom. While most of the citizens there seem of the mindset that military war would never break out, as the country is so small that any military action would damage the infrastructure and paralyse it; furthermore, the military is only a deterrent force, the readiness to military action gives leverage in negotiations between nation. For example, if the countries disagree over the supply of water that Malaysia gives Singapore to refine, and the discussions escalate towards a military standoff, having a reservist army puts the country in a better negotiating position. But while many may claim that a war is hypothetical, there is a simpler reason for maintaining fitness. A fitter population means less stress on the healthcare system. Singapore is the sustainable healthcare system that many countries are seeking to adopt.

Like many others in Singapore, Alan’s body does not produce enough insulin. This, as a result, causes the accumulation of sugar in the bloodstream. The lack of insulin leads to other health issues, such as general fatigue, infections, or other effects such as the failure of wounds to heal. However, all is not lost. Eating properly and having a good level of exercise can prevent the blood glucose level from rising and developing into diabetes.

Local researchers from the country’s National University Hospital (NUH), working together with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, have discovered that the reason why Asians are moresusceptible than Westerners to developing Type 2 diabetes is the inability of their bodies to produce high enough levels of insulin.

Even though the finding was based only on a small sample size of 140 mostly Chinese participants, the data, if expanded and refined, will point the way and help patients with diabetes to manage it better; not just for local patients but also within the region. Doctors believe that better dietary advice and a better selection of drugs would help patients to treat diabetes. The preliminary findings are part of the country’s largest diabetes study launched last year. The five-year ongoing study has recruited around 1,300 participants, and aims to eventually nearly double that.

The researchers did however notice the ethnicity of the results was fairly restricted and more participants from a wider racial profile will be needed for the results to be applied to the general population.

Currently, the statistics show that one in three Singaporeans has a risk of developing diabetes. Currently, one out of every fourteen Singaporeans are diabetic. Type 2 diabetes comes about because insufficient insulin is produced by the pancreas, or because the body has insulin resistance.

A previous study that 8 per cent of Chinese people with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 23 have diabetes. A BMI of 23 is within the normal weight range for Caucasians, and the rate of diabetes development within Chinese people is four times more than their European counterparts. The researchers claimed that it highlighted the importance of avoiding too much high-glucose food such as those rich in simple carbohydrates which include white rice and sugar.

The findings could also lay the foundation for efforts to test whether therapies that target insulin secretion and the ability to make more insulin could be more effective in the local population, and lead to customised diabetes treatment.

What bearing does this have on us, and what action can we take? A good start would be to avoid eating high glucose food such as rice too often and managing our diet. Also try adopting a more active lifestyle!

Women and favoured sleep positions

If you’ve ever woken up in the morning to stiffness in a particular side you would probably arrive at the conclusion that you had spent much of that night lying in that position. That discomfort may have arisen from the weight of your body pressed against that side for a prolonged period.

An incorrect – or to be more specific – uncomfortable sleeping position can raise your blood pressure through the night and consequently bring along some of the other risks associated with raised blood pressure if repeated for a prolonged period.

If the pressure of your own body pressed against your side in a night causes that level of discomfort in the morning, imagine what would happen if you were a pregnant woman bearing the weight of a baby?

We have already examined in the previous post how common themes around daily life such as diet, exercise, medicine and mental health are often researched and investigated and thoroughly mined for slants and angles as part of a media strategy of generating column inches from pre-existing information and common knowledge.

So it is no surprise, hence, to see yet another article in the media dispensing advice on sleep.

The Mail Online advises women not to sleep on your back in the last trimester as it could cause stillbirth. Backed of course, by experts.

Remember the line of thinking mentioned in the previous post?

A shark is a fish. A whale is a fish. With time, sharks can become whales, according to experts.

This is how the media works.

The Mail Online seems to have done exactly that. Perhaps sensationalising the headline first, then teasing the reader along the way by purporting to reveal the organisation and result of a blitz of information at the end. Except that after reading the article, you’ve probably thought it flowed well, but didn’t really reveal any insight.

The study – who financed it? – examined the sleep positions of twenty-nine women in their final trimester and the effects these had on their baby’s behaviour.

The overall result was that all babies were born healthy. On that basis there was no significant impact on sleeping positions on baby development. Remember the attention grabbing headline? It seemingly amounted to nothing in the end.

The tenuous link used in the research was that when women slept on their right side, babies were slightly more likely to be active and awake, and if mothers slept on their backs, babies were more likely to be quietly asleep.

The research was carried out by researchers in New Zealand and involved placing ECG monitors on mothers in the third trimester.

Despite the non-entity of significant results, sleeping on your back for a pregnant mother may compress major blood vessels and this may change the baby’s heart rate.

But don’t role out the possibility that in years to come, the media may use this piece of research to bulk up an article fronted by the headline “Sleeping on your back gives you calmer babies”, using the tenuous link that the blood flow and pressure of stressed, tense pregnant women to the baby was reduced when they slept on their backs.

There are 7 billion in this planet and using a study sample size of twenty nine women is also ridiculously small. If 1 of those women had experienced complications then the headline might have been “3% of all foetuses at risk”!

Just sleep in a comfortable position. And get lots of sleep. And go see your GP for advice instead of seeking health advice from a newspaper.

You know how media spin works.

What your breakfast reveals about media companies

Wordsmiths would tell you that the origins of the word “breakfast” lie in the words “break” and “fast”. Then again, you wouldn’t actually need an expert to tell you the combined word comes from its intention – to end the fasting period. What fast? Presumably in Roman days the fast represented the period from after sunset to sunrise, where people had to endure going without food in the cold of night, at a time when the thinking was “Eat as much as you can during the day, while you can”. The line of thinking about what to eat for breakfast certainly does vary from place to place. Some believe that after a period of doing without food – okay, so a few hours every evening now after a “Just Eat” gorge of Indian takeaway washed down with bottles of Kingfisher can hardly be called a fast anymore –  the body has to stock up on its resources. Enter the full English breakfast; sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, beans (mustn’t forget your greens), black pudding – everything you wanted to eat during the day, presented to you literally on a plate, in case you miss the opportunity to eat later on. In contrast, there are others of the thinking that after an overnight period of doing without, the body cannot be forced into what is a gorge. Just as someone who is parched and dehydrated has to resist the natural urge to guzzle down water when presented with it, breakfast, some think, is only a primer for a heavy lunch. Hence the idea of a light continental croissant, a little way of appeasing the hungry body but regulating the intake of food so the body is not lulled into a yo-yo pattern of starvation and gorging that is more typical of eating disorders.

Makes sense? Both points of view actually do, despite the conflicts about whether or not to eat heavy first thing in the morning. But to further complicate the issue, a third group believes that since your body, when at rest, will require resources to draw on when you are asleep, then it makes perfect sense to load up with a heavy meal as the last meal of the day. Start light, finish heavy. Viewed in the context, it makes sense too.

If there is any one consistent factor about diet, it is probably that the debate, ideas and media reports will continue into the future, and ideas will come and go and come back again. The fad for various diets has sold books and filled magazine columns and given the media lots to write about, which is great for the industry because media is not a sector that relies on bringing to you information that is necessarily correct, it is a sector that relies on attracting readership and human traffic in order to build up a reader base which it leverages to companies to sell advertising. Advertising is what drives media, not the exposition or exploration of facts. Hence media companies will present information that they feel is of interest and will hook in readers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be substantiated, as long as there is a fellow source to mention, as if the validation of facts had been corroborated by them.

Where do research scientists fit in this grand scheme of things? There are various kinds of research scientists, ones that truly explore the world in order to further it, and others who conduct investigation in order that it may be latched on to by the media in reports. Ultimately it comes down to who is funding the work. Funded by a company such as Cancer Research? The investigative research conducted by such research scientists is likely to be subject to stringer validation. Funded by a pharmaceutical company? The data obtained by such research needs to be handled carefully in order that the outcomes are not flawed or biased towards any products the company is producing.

In other words, if a pharmaceutical company is working on producing a medical product that is, for example, has seaweed as an active ingredient, then the research must not be conducted in a way that only shows the positive benefits of seaweed; research that only gives supposed scientific validation to a pre-determined result.

Bias is all too easy to spot when the links are direct, when a pharmaceutical company employs scientists. But what happens when the grand paymaster is the media company?

Hang on, I hear you say. Why would a media company, perhaps a newspaper, employ a group of scientists? And how could they get away with it?

The end product for a pharmaceutical company is a medical one. The end product for a newspaper is news, and the research scientists are there to provide it.

The group of scientists don’t necessarily need to be under permanent employ, just occasional contract work when there are lull periods in the news. And the work that they do is not necessarily related to what is in the article that is published anyway. Tenuous links are exploited to maximise the draw of a headline.

This is how it works:

A shark is a fish. A whale is a fish. Your newspaper reports that there is the possibility that sharks could become whales.

And that’s it.

A media company – newspaper, magazine, channel, web agency – can hire research scientists to lend credibility to semi-extravagant claims.

As long as there is another attributable source, or somewhere to dismiss the evidence – easily done by mentioning “It is generally accepted that …” or “Common convention holds that …” before launching into the juicy bit – the bit that spins things out, through a long process by which the receiver, either reader or viewer, has hopefully forgotten what the gist of the argument was in the first place – everything can passed off. In fact, it is a psychological trick – the receiver keeps following in the hope of being able mentally ordering the great influx of information.

Ever watched a BBC drama series? After six episodes, numerous disjointed flashbacks, the final  episode always seems a bit of a letdown because you realise everything was obvious and the in-betweens were just filler bits to spin things out.

I digress. But returning to the point, media companies can hire research scientists on an occasional basis. Some may even do so, and have a scientist for full time hire as a generator of scientific news.

A direct link between a media agency and a research scientist may sound implausible. But think of the UK’s Channel 4 programme, Embarrassing Bodies, where a team of four doctors go around examining people, dispensing advice, running health experiments in a format of an hour-long slot punctuated by two minutes of advertisements for every thirteen minutes of the programme.

If the media company does not want its links to be so obvious, it can dilute them progressively through the form of intermediary companies.

For example, ABC newspaper hires DEF company to manage its search engine optimisation campaign. DEF hires GHI creative media, who hire  JKL, a freelance journalist who knows Dr MNO, who conducts research for hire. Eventually MNO’s “research” ends up in the ABC newspaper. If it proves to be highly controversial or toxic to some extent, ABC’s links to MNO are very, very easy to disavow.

So when the media recently reported that scientists say skipping the morning meal could be linked to poorer cardiovascular health, should we pay any heed to it?

The research findings revealed that, compared with those who had an energy-dense breakfast, those who missed the meal had a greater extent of the early stages of atherosclerosis – a buildup of fatty material inside the arteries.

But the link been skipping breakfast and cardiovascular health is tenuous at best, as the articles themselves admit.

“People who skip breakfast, not only do they eat late and in an odd fashion, but [they also] have a poor lifestyle,” said Valentin Fuster, co-author of the research and director of Mount Sinai Heart in New York and the Madrid-based cardiovascular research institute, the CNIC.

So a poorer lifestyle gives negative impact to your health. A poorer lifestyle causes you to miss breakfast. Sharks do become whales.

This supposed link between skipping breakfast and cardiovascular health was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, and the research had partly been funded by the Spanish bank Santander. The health and diets of 4,052 middle-aged bank workers, both men and women, with no previous history of cardiovascular disease were compared.

You can bet that on another day where news is slow, someone will roll out an “Eating breakfast on the move harms your health” headline. Nothing to do with the way you move and eat, it is simply because you have a stressful lifestyle that impacts on your health which forces you to eat on the go. But it was a link and headline, a “sell” or bait that drew you in to either purchase a newspaper or magazine, watch a programme, or spend some dwell time on a site.

And that’s how media works.