Ethically spending a million pounds on useful research

Does offering financial incentives encourage mothers of newborns to breastfeed? While this may seem incredulous, a study actually was implemented in parts of England to see if this would be the case.

More than 10,000 mothers across regions such as South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire took part in the trial, where mothers were given a hundred and twenty pounds if they breastfed their babies, and a further eighty pounds if they continued up to the point the babies were six months old. That is to say mothers received two hundred pounds if their babies were breastfed up to the age of six months.

But why was this implemented in the first place? One of the reasons the study was done was to see if financial incentives would help raise the rate of breastfeeding in the UK. In some parts of the UK, only one in eight babies are breastfed past eight weeks. The early suspension of breastfeeding causes later problems in life for babies, and this was a study to see if it would be possible to save a reported seventeen million pounds in annual hospital admissions or GP visits.

How were these women chosen? They were picked from areas which were reportedly low-income ones. There was a suggestion that in low-income areas, mothers feel obliged to return to work quickly and breastfeeding is inconvenient and a reason why mothers stop it.

The financial incentive did result in a rise of six percentage points, from 32% to 38%. This meant that over six hundred more mothers in the ten thousand breastfed their babies for up to six months instead of the hypothetical eight week line.

Should we get excited about these results? Caution is to be exercised.

As a few leading academics noted, there was no way to monitor a reported increase. The mother’s word was taken at face value but there was no way to monitor that a prolonged breastfeeding period actually took place. It would not be inaccurate to say that of these six hundred mothers, some merely reported they had breastfed for longer but without actually doing it. If you live in an income-deprived area, and were offered two hundred pounds of shopping at a time when you needed it, without having to do much apart from saying “Yes, I breastfed”, wouldn’t you take the easy money?

It was mentioned that if the results did have a high percentage of trustworthiness to them, in other words, if mothers breastfed as they said they had done, it would help normalise breastfeeding in regions where it might cause embarrassment to the mother. Why might breastfeeding cause embarrassment? For example, in some social situations it might be slightly awkward to reveal normally covered parts of the body in public.

How much did the scheme cost? If we assume that 38% of 10000 mothers breastfed and claimed these financial vouchers, that’s around 4000 mothers each claiming two hundred pounds, at a cost of eight hundred thousand pounds.

Wow. Eight hundred thousand pounds of free shopping for which an outcome cannot be undisputably proven. Where does all the money come from?

The Medical Research Council was funded to the tune of up to seven hundred and fifty-five million pounds in 2016/17, or which nearly half was provided as grants to researchers. But while all that may sound as a lot of money, surely there should be more accountability in how the money is used. Using up nearly a million pounds of that money for a trial whose results cannot be justified is not a good use of money.

But perhaps the babies’ height, weight and other factors pertaining to breastfeeding could have been taken? For example, if we know that breastfeeding has benefits in certain areas, such as in growth charts, perhaps the babies that were breastfed in that study could have been measured against babies who had not been breastfed to see if there had been any positive gain, and something that could correlate to breastfeeding over the six month period?

Imagine if this had been a study about literacy. Imagine that mothers who read two stories to their child up to the age of four years would receive two hundred pounds. Surely, at the end of the period, the research scientists would not merely be going to the mothers and saying “Did you read to your child? Yes? Here’s two hundred pounds.” They would try to assess the child, perhaps by means of a literacy test of some form, to see if any reading had actually taken place.

Otherwise it is just money down the drain for results which cannot be proven and cannot be relied on. In that case, what is the purpose of spending money on hearsay?

Did giving eight hundred thousand pounds encourage mothers in income-deprived areas to breastfeed for longer periods? Who knows? The only thing we can be sure of is that eight hundred thousand pounds made them say they did it.

Health umbrella reviews mask the real issues

You have to wonder why the breakfast tea doesn’t get the same level of attention. Or perhaps whether in France, the humble croissant is elevated to the same status. Or maybe the banana could soon be the star of another media show. But unfortunately it is coffee that headlines tomorrow’s fish and chips papers.

“Drinking three or four cups of coffee a day could have benefits for your health”. As we have seen previously, this kind of headline bears the hallmarks of a media health report:

1) repackaging of common information requiring little or no specialist examination;

2) use of a modal auxiliary verb (could) to conveniently justify or disclaim an

attention-grabbing headline – which, by the way, is point number three.

The health reports in the media also incorporate:

4) a statistically small group of trial participants, whose results are then blown up in proportion as if to be representative of the 7 billion people on the planet.

5) Assumptions. A media report about health could simply include assumptions.

Why dwell on coffee? For starters, it is a commonly consumed drink and so any meaningful research would potentially have bearings on millions of people. It is common media practice to focus on common food and activities because of the relevance to daily life.

But if you examine this carefully, why not tea? Why not write about tea? While conspiracy theories may be slightly far fetched, it is possible that – unless it is a speciality tea – coffees cost more, and any potential health benefits would lead people to spend more, hence generating more for the economy in the forms of tax. Perhaps this is why media writers don’t waste too much ink on researching the potential life-saving benefits of bananas, even though they are widely consumed. The research isn’t going to drive people to buy bananas in bulk, and even so, the extra revenue generated from a low priced item isn’t going to raise much extra tax.

Are there any notable similarities or differences in style across different countries? One wonders whether Parisian newspapers, on a regular basis, churn out headlines such as:

“Eating two or more croissants a day could reduce your chances of heart disease.”

“Pan aux raisins linked with dementia”.

The research done was an umbrella review to potentially examine whether further research should be undertaken into researching the effects of coffee and its role in preventing liver cancer. An umbrella review meant that no actual research was undertaken, but that existing research was examined and analysed to glean insights.

The problem with umbrella reviews is that they are very generalised, no actual research is done, and they are only brief analyses of existing research. This means that first of all, an umbrella review could arrive at a particular conclusion, but in no way should that be taken as the final conclusion.

In fact, the findings of an umbrella review are only the preliminary to more detailed investigation. If an umbrella review suggested that drinking coffee could prevent cancer, then what it is saying is more research needs to be undertaken, and the media needs to be ethically responsible by not reporting “Coffee prevents Cancer”, because there are people that look at newspapers and television as the source of their information and assume just because it has been released in the public domain, it is truth. Who could conceive that newspapers spend time and resources to publish trivial information and that television is pure rubbish?

The second problem with umbrella reviews is that the outcomes are only as good as the original sources. If someone gave you a set of grainy photos, then asked you to make a collage with them, then your collage is going to be as good as the grainy photos will allow. If the original sources were not thorough or exact in their investigation, are any subsequent findings based on these merely just a waste of time?

The third issue with umbrella reviews is that under closer scrutiny, the overall picture is distorted by over focussing on small statistical variances, or sometimes minute errors are magnified and lead one down the wrong path.

If you took a picture on your phone and then blew it up to the size of a mural covering the side of your house, the picture becomes very dotty. You might see big patchy squares. But if you started looking for that big patchy square from the image in your phone… one has to wonder what the purpose of that is.

The fourth is that because umbrella reviews are a prelude to a more thorough investigation, their end results are slightly skewed from the outset. If an umbrella review is bound to provide a few avenues for later time-consuming research then it is fundamentally biased into having to provide one in the first place. Why, in that case, have such reviews in the first place? Some may point out that the flaw in the system is that umbrella reviews are relied on by those in academia and research to warrant the continued longevity of their positions. In other words, if researchers had nothing to research, they might be out of a job, so they best find something to stick their noses in.

Have you ever read the London newspaper Metro and come across some research news such as:

“Going to bed angry can wreck your sleep” (25 Sept 2017)

It is the sort of headline that makes you think “Why bother doing the research in the first place?”

It is likely that you have read a media report of an umbrella review.

What were the findings of the original coffee review?

Drinking coffee was consistently linked with a lower risk of death from all causes and from heart disease. The largest reduction in relative risk of premature death was seen in people consuming three cups a day, compared with non-coffee drinkers.

Now, when an umbrella review mentions drinking coffee is linked with a lower risk of death, it is important to be clear about what it specifically means. And what it is stating is that those who had a lower risk of death all happened to drink coffee. It might have nothing to do with the coffee itself. It might have been that they took a break to slow down a fast-paced lifestyle, and the taking of a break gave them a lower risk of death. By that logic of association, tea could also be linked with a lower risk of death.

Coffee was also associated with a lower risk of several cancers, including prostate, endometrial, skin and liver cancer, as well as type-2 diabetes, gallstones and gout, the researchers said. The greatest benefit was seen for liver conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver.

Again, to be clear, the above link means that those who were at lower risk of those cancers happened to drink coffee. But it is not necessarily stating the coffee had anything to do with it.

And coffee is such a commonly consumed drink, that it is easy to use it to draw links to anything.

If people who died from car accidents happened to drink coffee, an umbrella review might state that drinking coffee is linked with higher incidences of car accidents.

The findings can be summarised by a health analyst:

“Does coffee prevent chronic disease and reduce mortality? We simply do not know. Should doctors recommend drinking coffee to prevent disease? Should people start drinking coffee for health reasons? The answer to both questions is ‘no’.”

We should perhaps add a further third question: Did the umbrella review produce any actionable findings, and should it have been undertaken in the first place?

Probably not.

Is there any truth about the benefits of Classical music?

Is there any truth to the commonly accepted notion that listening to classical music improves mental capacity? Somehow it has been accepted in modern society that classical musicians have larger frontal cortices, better mental reasoning powers and perhaps intelligence quotients. Over the last two decades or so this idea has fuelled a rise in the number of pregnant mothers listening to classical music – whether or not they like it – and parents enrolling their children into music classes. The music of Mozart, in particular, has enjoyed a resurgence as its classical form is deemed to be more logical and organised, compared to music of other periods, assisting in triggering patterns of organisation in the brain amongst its listeners.

How did this idea about Classical music come about? In the 1990s scientists conducted a series of experiments where one group of students were played one of Mozart’s piano sonatas before a spatial reasoning test, while another group sat in silence. The group that was played the music beforehand performed better on that task than the control group. The effect on the control group was temporary and only lasted fifteen minutes, meaning that after the fifteen minute mark the disparities between the results were minimal and statistically the same. The results of the group found also that while music primed the individual particularly for mathematical tasks, after an hour of listening to Classical music, the effect on the brain was lost.

That piece of research was pounced on by the media and other individuals and seemingly perpetuated to promote the listening of Classical music. One governor of the state of Georgia even decreed that newborn babies be given a copy of a CD of Mozart’s works upon leaving the hospital. The Mozart Effect, to give it its common name, was written about in newspapers and magazines, and this began the spur of Mozart-related sales of music as well as the trend of mothers playing such music to their children in and out of the womb.

The most important question we need to ask is whether there is any truth in such research, and whether it can be corroborated.

We know that some forms of music has a soothing, calming effect on individuals. Playing the music to the students may have calmed that so they were not nervous, allowing them to perform better on the task. However, relaxation need not take them the form of Classical music. Any activity that promotes calm before a task – reading a light magazine, playing computer games, talking with a friend – can also hence be said to have the same effect as the classical music that was played.

What if the students in the group had read a joke book or comic beforehand, been less worried about the test and scored better? It might have prompted a deluge of articles claiming “Reading Archie (or The Beano – insert your own title here) improves your IQ”.

Or if the students had been offered a protein drink beforehand, it would not be inconceivable that someone would latch to that piece of research and declare that “Protein Drinks not just good for your body, but for your brain too”.

Mozart’s music has been said to embody the elements of classical music as we know it. Organised formal structures, chords and harmonies through related keys, use of contrasting tunes, contrasts in volume all feature in his music. But the music of other composers have such features too. Imagine if the composer Josef Haydn had been the lucky beneficiary of the experiment and his music had been played instead. The sales of his music catalogue would have hit the roof!

Subsequent scientists all found that listening to music of any form caused improvements, and the genre of music – whether rock or Classical – was irrelevant. But studies today still quote Mozart.

Is it ethical that the media promotes unsubstantiated research by reporting without closer scrutiny? As we have seen in previous blogs posts, the media reports on things without necessarily scrutinising the evidence, and entrusts so-called experts to corroborate the evidence, while it fills column inches and air time with modal auxiliary verbs? Huh? In simple terms, it means that if there is a sniff of a link between A and B, the media reports that “A could cause B”. Never mind whether it does or not, there is always the disclaimer of the word “could”.

In this instance, students performed better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to Mozart; hence the headline “Mozart could improve mental powers”. Diluted over several recounts, you could get “According to XXX newspaper, Mozart improves brain power” before arriving at “Mozart improves brain power”. Unfortunately, this is when the headline is then pounced on by anyone who would stand to profit from espousing this theme.

Who would profit from this? The Classical music world – performers, writers, musicians – can use this “research” to entice people into taking up lessons and buying CDs and magazines. If you read any music teacher’s website you may find them espousing the benefits of learning music; it is rare if you find one that advises it is a lot of effort.

The media will profit from such “research” because it means there is an untapped well of news to report and bleed dry in the quest for filling column inches and air time. News exclusives will be brought out, and so-called experts will also profit for appearing on the news and programmes, either monetarily or in the form of public exposure.

One must question the ethics of incorrect reporting. Unfortunately unsubstantiated research leads to more diluted misreporting, which can then form the basis of new research – research that uses these claims as the groundwork for investigation.

It is scary to think that all the medical research that has been done into effect of music and health could be biased because of the so-called effect of classical music. Could musical activities such as learning the piano help reduce Parkinson’s disease? Could listening to the music of Beethoven reduce the incidence of higher cases of Alzheimer’s disease? Could it all be wrong – have we all been sent down the wrong tunnel by an avalance of hype reporting?

It may be fair to say the human impulse is to buy first and consider later, because we are prone to regret. If we have missed an opportunity to improve the lives and abilities of our children, then we will be kicking ourselves silly forever with guilt.

So if you are still not convinced either way about whether classical music – either in the listening or the practice – really does have any effect, you could at least mitigate your guilt by exposing your child to piano music, for example that has predictable patterns in the left hand. Sometimes, listening to structurally-organised music such as from the Baroque may be useful, but it is also good to listen to Romantic music because the greater range of expression arguably develops a child that has more emotionally subtlety and intelligence.

You may find that ultimately, any truth in the research about Classical music and its mental benefits is not due to the blind passive listening, sitting there while the music goes on around your children. It is in the child’s inner drive to mentally organise the sounds that are heard, the trying and attempts to organise background sounds that really triggers the mental activity in the brain. It is more the practised ability in the inner mind to organise musical sounds that causes better performance in related mental tasks.

Night time eating? Heart disease coming

That late night snack may be comforting and the perfect end to a day. However, if research is proven to be right, it could be the cumulative cause of heart disease.

Scientists have always known that night shift workers are at greater health risks than workers who work regular patterns. Which is why if you divided the pay shift workers receive by the hours worked, you would find that they have a higher hourly rate compared to those who do the same job during normal hours. That extra pay is to compensate for what is commonly perceived as the extra demand of working during the night, at a time your body is looking to shut down for a rest. The external pressures of going against your body, over a prolonged period, can exert a toll on the body.

Scientists in Mexico researching the links between diet and the human body tested their hypotheses on rats. The rats were fed food at a time when their bodies would normally be at rest, and the results showed that the fats from food remained longer as triglycerides in the body’s bloodstream for longer, because their bodies were at a resting state and not primed to break down food.

Bearing in mind that the research was done on rats, and while some results may have bearing on humans and some may not, what points could we take from these research results?

Having high levels of triglycerides in one’s body means that the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks are significantly increased. Hence, if you are eating late at night, you may be at greater risk. Although the research is only at its infancy, they could suggest that the body is better when it comes to the processing of fats, when it is at its most active state, as it comes at more of a natural time.

What can you do if you work shifts? You may not have much control over the food you eat, but you can take steps towards eating a healthier diet and make time for regular exercise so the overall risk of heart disease is lowered. And if you do not work shifts, but work during the day, a big meal late at night is also best avoided for you.

The financial considerations of investing in medicine and medical research

BBC News reports that a drug that would reduce the risk of HIV infection would result in cost savings of over £1bn over 80 years. Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or Prep, would reduce infection and hence lower the treatment costs for patients in the long term.

The catch? There is one. It’s the long term.

The cost of the treatment and prevention is such that its provision for the first twenty years – bundling together the cost of medical research and production of medicine – would result in a financial loss, and parity would only be achieved after a period of about thirty to forty years; this period is hard to define because it is dependent on what the drug would cost in the future.

Prep combines two anti-HIV drugs, emtricitabine and tenofovir. The medical trials behind it have concluded it has an effective rate of over one in five when it comes to protecting men who have unprotected sex with men from HIV infection. The exact figure is close to 86%.

Prep can be used either on a daily basis, or on what has been termed a sexual event basis – using it for two days before, during and after periods of unprotected sex.

The research model analysed the potential impact of Prep and found that it could reduce infection rates by over a quarter. The cost of the treatment itself, comparative to the cost of treating infection, would result in a saving over one billion pounds over eight years.

However, it does raise a few ethical questions. If the National Health Service is aiming to be a sustainable one – and one of the aims of sustainability is to empower citizens to take responsibility for their own health –  shouldn’t it be considering less about how it will balance the books, but spend more on education for prevention in the first place? The cost of producing Prep on the NHS would be £19.6 billion over 80 years; while the estimated savings from treatment would be £20.6 billion over the same period. Educating people not to have unprotected sex with those at the risk of HIV arguably would result in a higher saving over a lower time period. Perhaps the NHS should consider ways of reducing cost more significantly, rather than latching on to a cheaper prevention drug immediately. If consumer behaviour is not going to change, symptoms are still going to surface, and the provision of Prep on the NHS may only encourage less self-regulation and awareness.