Monday, 29 August 2011

Public Platforms, “Experts” and Error

BBC Radio 4 is generally thought to be the transmitter of “quality” broadcasting, and its weekly “Any Questions” programme is considered worthy of serious attention. OK, so the opinions of some of the celebrities on the panel might be taken with a pinch of salt, but those of the experienced politicians, journalists, academics and scientists who feature on every edition may not readily be dismissed.

            It was all the more shocking, then, that an eminent scientist, Dame Wendy Hall, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, should have made such a crass and inaccurate statement with regard to the way general practitioners consult with patients presenting with hypertension (high blood pressure).

            The question concerned the increasing prevalence of obesity in the population, and whether an appropriate way to address it might be to put into practice the proposal that “junk” foods should be taxed.

            Professor Hall chose, in her response, to offer the opinion that a part of the problem lay in the way she claimed that general practitioners handle the presentation of high blood pressure. “You’ve got to think of this holistically,” she said, “But you go to see a doctor for high blood pressure, you get a pill for high blood pressure.” Her implication was that doctors do not look at the wider issues of lifestyle – do not look on situations in a “holistic” context (to use a hackneyed and discredited term).

            This is a terrible misrepresentation of the facts. All the more surprising because a scientist should concern herself with facts – not speculation, hearsay, sources of information that go unchallenged or whatever.

            GPs have always looked at the problems patients present to them in the context of them as people, a part of a family or community, they way they live and what they do to maintain their health or to compromise it. OK, so their efforts to do this are constrained somewhat by the all too brief allocation of time to do it in. The demand for their time sets the appointment length pretty universally at ten minutes (when I started in practice, it was six minutes).

            What she said was insulting to the legions of doctors who follow conscientiously the guidelines given to them - guidelines that have been painstakingly drawn up on a well researched evidence base.

            Professor Hall should have known better. More than that – she should be ashamed of herself for so portraying the dedicated men and women in the medical profession who do their damnedest to give their best against very considerable odds.

            For just a few moments she spoke, not as a true scientist basing her statements on accepted truths, but more like a person who, with staggering credulity, had blindly accepted the mouthing off of a sensation seeking journalist writing in a cheap magazine.

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