Letter in the Daily Telegraph on “reputable” health websites and their problems

  1. On 1 January 2018, I had a letter published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on “reputable” health websites and their problems.
  2. This was in response to the Telegraph’s front-page story on 29 December 2017, “Patients told: ask Dr Google before your GP”. There it was reporting the latest advice from the Royal College of GPs to reduce the number of unnecessary GP consultations: http://www.rcgp.org.uk/news/2017/december/3-before-gp-new-rcgp-mantra-to-help-combat-winter-pressures-in-general-practice.aspx.
  3. My letter is available on the Telegraph website: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2018/01/01/lettersthe-honours-system-based-strange-definition-public-service/.
  4. For those outside the paywall, here it is as published:

Sir,

In an attempt to reduce the number of unnecessary GP consultations, the Royal College of GPs has advised the public to follow three steps before booking an appointment (report, December 29). One of these is to consult NHS Choices or “similar reputable websites/ resources”.

But what exactly is a reputable health website? Opaque business models abound, even among trusted websites. Very few, if any, adequately disclose their contributors’ relevant financial interests.

Moreover, if a health site carries adverts, the separation between them and editorial can be blurred.

Dr Alex May

Manchester’

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Dr Miriam Stoppard dismisses “detox foot patches” as a sham – but Daily Mirror carried ads for them earlier this year

  1. On 19 December 2017, Daily Mirror health columnist Dr Miriam Stoppard rightly dismissed “detox foot patches” as a sham: Daily Mirror 19 Dec 2017.
  2. But something she didn’t mention: her newspaper carried ads for them earlier this year. See, for example, this ad on 25 January 2017: Daily Mirror 25 Jan 2017 p.24. The same ad also appeared on 7 March 2017: Daily Mirror 7 Mar 2017 p.35.
  3. The advertiser is Health Broadcast Ltd, a company I wrote about on 15 August 2017. As I then pointed out, there’s no UK-registered company with that name, according to the Companies House register. Further, the company didn’t respond to emails asking why it isn’t on the Companies House register.
  4. My 15 August 2017 post describes my complaints to the Daily Mail newspaper after it persisted in publishing ads for Health Broadcast Ltd.

Iain Dale is an “ex-Tory MP” – POLITICO

  1. On 10 December 2017, political news website POLITICO described Iain Dale as “commentator and ex-Tory MP” in its weekly Sunday Crunch round-up of British politics that, er, Sunday (screen shot in Figure 1). In fact, Mr Dale was never actually an MP: he was a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives in the May 2005 general election, though, according to the biography on his personal website.

    Figure 1. Iain Dale, “commentator and ex-Tory MP” – POLITICO Sunday Crunch on 10 December 2017

  2. Mr Dale is well known for being managing director of Biteback Publishing, which bills itself as “Britain’s leading publisher of political and current affairs titles”. Biteback’s new books include high-profile “Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election,” by UK political journalists Tim Ross and Tom McTague.
  3. Which brings us back to POLITICO: Mr McTague is its chief UK political correspondent, based in parliament. As such, he was joint author with Paul Dallison of the 10 December 2017 Sunday Crunch.
  4. Mr Dale must hope “Betting the House” is more accurate.
  5. We’d love to hear what you think,” says Sunday Crunch. Yet at date of publication Mr McTague hasn’t responded to my email. The “ex-Tory MP” claim remains, too.

Menopause Matters secretly promotes advertisers on Twitter

  1. Menopause Matters, a trusted source of information for both women experiencing the menopause, and healthcare professionals (HCPs), secretly promotes advertisers on Twitter. Here I show two examples.
  2. Managing director Dr Heather Currie, a high-profile gynaecologist and obstetrician, founded multi award-winning Menopause Matters (MM) as a website. She was chair of the British Menopause Society (BMS), the influential menopause charity, in 2016-17; and continues to be a trustee (see 17 July 2017 post).

    Figure 1. Menopause Matters homepage at 16 September 2017

  3. MM bills itself as independent. Nevertheless its website carries loads of ads for menopause-related products and services (screen shot in Figure 1), proclaiming at the foot of each page: “Adverts on this website are not endorsed by Menopause Matters.” There’s also a shop on the website, and another statement MM doesn’t endorse any of the products and services advertised there. At date of publication there are 21 – yes, 21 – advertisers in the shop, including Hyalofemme, a vaginal moisturiser, and Physicool’s cooling spray for hot flushes (screen shot in Figure 2).

    Figure 2. Menopause Matters shop at 4 December 2017

  4. MM isn’t just a website. It publishes a quarterly magazine of the same name, similarly chock-full of ads. The latest, for winter 2017, is the 50th issue. There’s an active presence on social media, too, including Twitter (@menomatters). On 14 September 2017, MM tweeted about so-called EveryWoman Day on that date (screen shot in Figure 3), without disclosing the UK distributor of Hyalofemme – and MM advertiser – was behind it. While a month later (18 October 2017), MM retweeted a tweet from Physicool linking to its blog post supposedly about menopause-related anxiety (screen shot in Figure 4). Again, MM failed to say Physicool is an advertiser.

    Figure 3. Menopause Matters tweets about EveryWoman Day on 14 September 2017

    Figure 4. Menopause Matters retweets Physicool tweet on 18 October 2017

  5. Purple Orchid Pharma Limited, the UK distributor of Hyalofemme, is responsible for so-called EveryWoman Day. This year EveryWoman Day was “raising awareness” of vaginal dryness, funnily enough – and so Hyalofemme too (screen shot in Figure 5). And who should appear on the EveryWoman Day website on 14 September 2017 writing about vaginal dryness and vaginal moisturisers – Dr Currie (screen shot in Figure 6). She didn’t actually name Hyalofemme, though. That day, meanwhile, she was also quoted on the Purple Orchid Pharma website, where it waffled about EveryWoman Day and “highly effective” Hyalofemme (Figure 5). Therefore EveryWoman Day was little more than a marketing campaign for Hyalofemme. So why was the MM founder and managing director directly involved in such a misleading promotion? And why did “independent” MM tweet about EveryWoman Day, without revealing the UK distributor of Hyalofemme – and MM advertiser – was actually responsible for the campaign?

    Figure 5. EveryWoman Day “raising awareness” of vaginal dryness and vaginal moisturiser Hyalofemme at 16 September 2017

    Figure 6. Dr Heather Currie writes about vaginal dryness and vaginal moisturisers for EveryWoman Day at 16 September 2017

  6. EveryWoman Day in September 2017 wasn’t the first time Dr Currie publicly linked herself to Hyalofemme or its UK distributor. In 2011, for example, she commented explicitly about the vaginal moisturiser after it became available on prescription, according to The Hysterectomy Association website (screen shot in Figure 7).

    Figure 7. Dr Heather Currie quoted in 2011 on vaginal moisturiser Hyalofemme at 16 September 2017

  7. On 18 October 2017, MM retweeted a tweet from Physicool linking to its blog post supposedly about menopause-related anxiety (screen shot in Figure 8). The final paragraph of the anonymous post crowbarred in a plug for its spray: “If you are currently struggling with anxiety, attempting to ease other symptoms of menopause that you are experiencing, will make it easier to deal with. Our cooling spray is perfect for easing any hot flushes that you could be experiencing, helping you to get a better nights (sic) sleep. If you’re looking for more information on menopause and how to cope with it, check out our blog here for more information.”

    Figure 8. Physicool blog post supposedly about menopause-related anxiety at 20 October 2017

  8. It’s unclear why any woman experiencing the menopause, or HCP, should listen to Physicool on menopause-related anxiety. What exactly are its credentials to offer mental health advice, when it flogs a cooling spray? More seriously still, why did MM retweet the company’s tweet on this subject? And, of course, why did MM omit to mention Physicool is an advertiser?
  9. MM also accepts funding from pharmaceutical companies. For 2016, it declares funding from three drug firms: Bayer, Meda and Mylan (screen shot in Figure 9). MM hides the relevant amounts, though, which is obviously against the public interest. Previously, I exposed Mylan’s demonstrable track record in the UK of questionable, sometimes dishonest, practices in both its marketing of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to the public and its closeness to the menopause charities (see 17 July 2017 and 10 October 2017 posts). Those exposés were reported by The Sunday Times (see 31 July 2017 post) and Private Eye (see 3 November 2017 post). (HRT is the main treatment for menopause.) Thus funding from Mylan is a concern, whatever the amount.

    Figure 9. Menopause Matters sponsors at 4 December 2017

  10. MM, as I say, is a trusted source of information for both women experiencing the menopause, and HCPs. The official NHS Choices website, for example, lists MM as one of its “useful links” (screen shot in Figure 10). While Dr Currie, immediate past chair of BMS, is often quoted in the national media on menopause. For instance, she featured prominently in BBC Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark’s high-profile BBC TV documentary earlier this year, “Kirsty Wark: The Menopause and Me”. Its website explicitly states MM doesn’t endorse the many, many menopause-related products and services advertised there, which is a good thing, if true. It engenders public trust and confidence in its pronouncements and activities. Thus it’s particularly disappointing MM secretly promotes advertisers on Twitter. Self-styled independent MM isn’t independent at all.

    Figure 10. Menopause Matters on NHS Choices at 4 December 2017

  11. I sought a response from Dr Currie, who said in an email: “Regarding the issues raised, I am confident that the Social Media statement in our Disclaimer and Privacy section covers the questions raised and that there will be no further need for any email discussion” (screen shot in Figure 11). I disagreed, challenging her reply for two reasons. First, the social media statement to which she referred is new. How do I know? The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows that, previously, the social media statement wasn’t on the MM Disclaimer & Privacy page (see the page at 11 July 2017, for example: https://web.archive.org/web/20170711132356/www.menopausematters.co.uk/disclaimer.php). Similarly, on 5 December 2017, MM suddenly and without explanation tweeted a “disclaimer” about its retweets (screen shot in Figure 12). This was the day after I first emailed Dr Currie for comment. Second, the social media statement clearly fails to address all the issues, despite what she said. At date of publication I’ve received no further response from the MM founder and managing director.

    Figure 11. Social media statement on Menopause Matters Disclaimer & Privacy page at 11 December 2017

    Figure 12. Menopause Matters “disclaimer” tweet on 5 December 2017

Father and son employed by Young Gamblers Education Trust

  1. A controversial problem-gambling charity now employs a father and son, I can reveal. Previously, the son, who’s also a freelance photographer, was appointed by the charity to snap its recent symposium. Although apparently unpaid that day, the charity is listed as a “previous client” on his photographer website. The charity wouldn’t disclose how many applications it received for the son’s new paid role.
  2. The Young Gamblers Education Trust (trading name: YGAM) is a national charity whose mission is “to inform, educate and safeguard young people against problematic gambling and social gaming” (registered charity number: 1162425). It was founded by chief executive Lee Willows. Registered as a charity in June 2015, YGAM has been criticised for its closeness to the gambling industry (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/aug/19/britains-newest-gambling-addiction-charity-funded-industrys-gala-bet365-paddy-power). The trustees at the date of the newspaper report (August 2016) included people working for gambling and gambling-related companies. Further, the charity accepted and continues to accept funding from the industry; and works with various “corporate partners”. These include gambling giants Ladbrokes Coral, Paddy Power Betfair and Bet365, among others.
  3. In response to the bad publicity around the direct involvement of gambling executives in its management and administration, YGAM has refreshed its board of trustees, including appointing a new chair, Rachel Jones, with effect from 1 November 2017. None of the now seven trustees, all volunteers, discloses any involvement with the gambling industry: the board is “fully independent,” says the website.
  4. Fine, but YGAM now employs a father and son, Adrian Sladdin and Charles Sladdin. Adrian, director of education, is self-evidently a senior member of staff (screen shot in Figure 1). Son Charles is data & impact officer (screen shot in Figure 2). The particulars for Charles’ role reveal it reports to his father: data-and-impact-officer. Cosy.

    Figure 1. Adrian Sladdin: YGAM director of education at 1 November 2017

  5. Data & impact officer is a paid role, as the job ad on the YGAM website shows (screen shot in Figure 3). It’s identified as a funded post in the new organisational structure as well (see below).

    Figure 2. Charles Sladdin: YGAM data & impact officer at 1 November 2017

  6. What’s more, before recruiting Charles in that role, YGAM appointed him to photograph its symposium, which took place on 7 September 2017 at City, University of London. Charles is a freelance photographer, too (screen shot in Figure 4). His website in that role bears the somewhat immodest slogan: “Smart photographer. Even smarter photographs.”

    Figure 3. Job ad for YGAM data & impact officer at 1 November 2017

  7. Lee, London” may be right: “Charles is a young man with a huge talent and an absolute eye for detail when it comes to photography… Get in touch with him today, you will not be disappointed.” Nevertheless selection by Lee’s YGAM of Charles as “principle (sic) official photographer” for its event raises questions about nepotism.

    Figure 4. Charles Sladdin, photographer: “what my previous clients have said” at 1 November 2017

  8. Mr Willows told me in an email Charles was unpaid as snapper that day. Yet YGAM is listed as a “previous client” on his photographer website.
  9. Adrian Sladdin wasn’t involved in the recruitment process for the data & impact officer, at least according to Mr Willows. Fine, but the chief executive himself, of course, issued a glowing testimonial for Charles after he photographed YGAM‘s symposium. His testimonial indicates it’s reasonable to suggest he was biased in Charles‘ favour when later recruiting him for the paid position – even before we consider Charles is the son of Mr Willows‘ colleague, Adrian.
  10. Mr Willows disagreed in an email: “I help all our volunteers in different ways and there is no connection to this gesture of thanks and his appointment in YGAM.”
  11. When I raised the fact the particulars for Charles’ role show he reports to his father, the chief executive replied YGAM had consequently changed its organisational structure. He provided a revised chart depicting the new organisational structure, also now available on the website.
  12. YGAM wouldn’t tell me how many applications it received for the data & impact officer post. Mr Willows only said in an email: “We have lots of interest for all positions in YGAM and all positions are advertised on our website; on average we have 14 applications for everybody (sic) role.”
  13. YGAM has clearly improved its governance, or at least created that impression, with the new board, including a new chair. The charity is now less close to the gambling industry – in terms of the trustees anyway. This should surely improve YGAM’s credibility. It still receives funding from gambling firms, though. Indeed, the charity aims to sign up five new “corporate partners” in the current financial year 2017-18, according to the latest trustees’ annual report, for 2016-17. The recent decision revealed here to employ the son of a senior member of staff is concerning. What’s more, the son in his paid role reported to his father until a reorganisation. Nepotism, actual, potential or perceived, only undermines the charity’s credibility.

Dr Brexit erroneously declared unpaid role at TaxPayers’ Alliance on the register of MPs’ staff

  1. Holders of parliamentary passes as MPs’ staff are required to declare only paid roles on the register of MPs’ staff. Yet an influential Brexit campaigner working for a Conservative MP erroneously declared an apparently unpaid role at the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA), the campaign group.
  2. The declaration failed to state the role is unpaid. It isn’t self-evident from the job title – research fellow – it’s unpaid, either.
  3. Dr Lee Rotherham declares two roles, both at thinktanks, on the latest register of MPs’ staff (at 2 November 2017). He’s executive director at Veterans for Britain and director at The Red Cell. His MP sponsor is John Hayes, Conservative, who’s Minister of State at the Department for Transport.
  4. Dr Rotherham was director of special projects at Vote Leave, the official Brexit campaign in the 2016 EU referendum. Previously he’d been an adviser to Business for Britain, the eurosceptic campaign group established in 2013 by Matthew Elliott, who later became Vote Leave chief executive.
  5. In early 2016, Business for Britain had to repay a £50k grant itd received from charity the Politics and Economics Research Trust (PERT), after intervention by regulator the Charity Commission (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/09/vote-leave-chief-matthew-elliott-repays-charitable-grant-anti-eu-dossier-charity-commission). PERT itself is linked to the TPA (see 15 February 2016 post): indeed the charity was founded in October 2006 as the TaxPayers’ Alliance Research Trust, before changing its name a year later. Mr Elliott was PERT‘s founding company secretary, resigning in February 2010.
  6. On 20 November 2017, the Electoral Commission announced it’s opened an investigation to establish whether Vote Leave Limited, Mr Darren Grimes and/or Veterans for Britain breached campaign finance rules in relation to spending at the 2016 EU referendum. The commission says it has “reasonable grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed”. In May 2016, Vote Leave donated £100k to Veterans for Britain, according to the Electoral Commission online database.
  7. Because of the new investigation, it’s appropriate to scrutinise the links between Vote Leave and Veterans for Britain. Dr Rotherham, of course, was director of special projects at Vote Leave; and is currently executive director at Veterans for Britain.
  8. In the three years 2013-2015, Dr Rotherham, who tweets as “DrBrexit,” declared his research fellow post at the TPA. Here’s the register of MPs’ staff at 30 May 2013: register at 30 May 2013. The declaration continued into 2014, as the register at 26 June 2014 shows: register at 26 June 2014. And into 2015, too: see the register at 30 March 2015, for example: register at 30 March 2015. The declaration had vanished by 29 September that year, though: register at 29 September 2015.
  9. In February 2017, Dr Rotherham told me in an email his role as a research fellow at the TPA is an unpaid honorary one. (He still appears on the TPA website as a research fellow at date of publication (screen shot in Figure 1). As you can see, there continues to be no indication his is an unpaid role.) When I asked why in the first place he’d declared the post given it was apparently unpaid, the self-styled “veteran eurosceptic” wrote in March 2017: “Excessive diligence!”
  10. Nevertheless holders of parliamentary passes as MPs’ staff are required to declare only paid roles on the register of MPs’ staff. Thus anyone would reasonably infer Dr Rotherham had been paid by the TPA when he declared his research fellow role there. Dr Brexit says he wasn’t, which means his declaration was inaccurate.
  11. Neither Mr Hayes nor John O’Connell, TPA chief executive, responded to requests for comment in February 2017.

Figure 1. Dr Lee Rotherham: research fellow at the TaxPayers’ Alliance at 22 November 2017

BBC staff handling Freedom of Information Act matters hide their names and won’t explain why

  1. Recently, I had reason to make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the BBC. It refused my request for information, so my experience of the BBC Information Rights team wasn’t a happy one.
  2. Here I won’t say anything more other than all emails in the series I received from the BBC on this matter failed to disclose names. Everyone hid behind the sign-off BBC Information Rights. There’s an obvious irony in the BBC’s non-disclosure given the subject matter.
  3. What’s worse, the BBC was unaccountable on its lack of transparency. I asked in an email why staff names are withheld in this way. But answer there came none (at date of publication).
  4. The BBC says on its website it “welcomes feedback from the public on all aspects of our handling of Freedom of Information Act matters. Let us know your views.” Well, I did – and the broadcaster simply ignored my email with the question about its non-disclosure.
  5. On FOI, of all things, it’s difficult not to conclude the BBC is an opaque and unaccountable organisation.