Doctor plugs products without disclosure of interest on health website Patient

  1. Multi-award-winning health website Patient proudly proclaims its editorial team is “free from any commercial conflicts of interest”. Yet here I show one of the doctors in the team plugged products without disclosure of interest in an article there. To its credit, Patient acted immediately after I brought to its attention the problems with the article.
  2. Established for over 20 years, the independent health website is accredited by The Information Standard, NHS England’s quality mark; and was listed as “The top health website you can’t live without” by The Times newspaper in January 2013. Patient is part of EMIS Group Plc, “a major provider of healthcare software, information technology and related services in the UK” (EMIS Group website). The public and healthcare professionals don’t only access its content directly via Patient.info, which was upgraded in August 2017. Many GP practices, like the one where I’m registered as a patient, use EMIS Group software for their website – and this then includes health information from Patient. The health information on such practice websites is clearly labelled as from Patient.
  3. High-profile media doctor Sarah Jarvis is clinical director of the health website. At the beginning of the year, I wrote to her about its then article on vaginal dryness, published on 26 February 2016. The author was Dr Louise Newson (screen shot in Figure 1), a GP and menopause expert.

    Figure 1. Patient article on vaginal dryness by Dr Louise Newson at 4 January 2018

  4. Dr Newson is and/or has been paid to promote hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and other menopause-related products and services – but doesn’t always disclose her commercial relationships with the relevant companies (see 10 October 2017 post). That exposé was reported by Private Eye (see 3 November 2017 post).
  5. I told Dr Jarvis in an email I had three concerns about the then Patient article on vaginal dryness.
  6. First, there Dr Newson again fails to declare her relevant financial interests (see 10 October 2017 post). She’s paid to promote HRT and at least some, if not all, of the brands of vaginal lubricants and moisturisers she explicitly names (screen shot in Figure 2). She’s also worked with MonaLisa Touch (MLT), raising awareness of vaginal dryness and promoting the company.

    Figure 2. Guidance on HRT, and vaginal lubricants and moisturisers in Patient article on vaginal dryness by Dr Louise Newson at 4 January 2018

  7. Second, the “Clinical Editor’s comments (October 2017)” direct the reader to “the recently released helpful guidelines in the Further reading section below” (screen shot in Figure 3). Dr Newson is one of the two authors of the new guidance, which is published by the Primary Care Women’s Health Forum (PCWHF) (screen shot in Figure 4). My 10 October 2017 post, para 14, reveals Dr Newson failed in the PCWHF guidance to disclose her relevant commercial relationship with MLT. Further, the guidance has five sponsors, which include some of the brands of vaginal lubricants and moisturisers Dr Newson specifically identifies in her article for Patient.

    Figure 3. “Clinical Editor’s comments (October 2017)” in Patient article on vaginal dryness by Dr Louise Newson at 4 January 2018

    Figure 4. “Further reading and references” in Patient article on vaginal dryness by Dr Louise Newson at 4 January 2018

  8. Third, the “article information” shows Dr Newson as peer reviewer as well as author (screen shot in Figure 5). Is she (Dr Newson) really peer reviewer, too, I asked Dr Jarvis.

    Figure 5. “Article information” in Patient article on vaginal dryness by Dr Louise Newson at 4 January 2018

  9. I finished: “As you can see, Dr Newson isn’t ‘free from any commercial conflicts of interest’. Far from it. She undermines both her and Patient‘s credibility by being paid to promote menopause-related products and services. What’s worse, her relevant financial interests are hidden on Patient.”
  10. In her response the next day, Dr Jarvis said Patient had immediately taken a number of steps because of my email. She finished: “I hope you are satisfied with the steps we have taken and I thank you for bringing this issue to our attention.”
  11. Patient had removed the article. Further, Dr Jarvis said in the email: “Going forward, Dr Newson will not be authoring any articles relating to menopause for Patient.info.”
  12. Patient‘s actions and written response prove that my complaint about the article was legitimate. Dr Newson’s article is no longer there.
  13. Dr Newson was shown as both author and peer reviewer of the article due to “an administrative error”, explained Dr Jarvis. Prof Cathy Jackson actually peer-reviewed it. She (Dr Jarvis) continued: “We are currently going through a major development of the information architecture on our site, which involves linking connected clinical issues together. As a result, the peer reviewer has been incorrectly accredited in some of our patient information leaflet (sic). We are working to correct this technical problem as quickly as possible.”
  14. I was duly impressed with Dr Jarvis’ response. It was prompt, and she dealt directly with all the issues I raised. It appeared that Patient was a serious and credible organisation. That was the end of the matter – or so I thought.
  15. A few days later, I received a threatening letter from a solicitor acting for Dr Newson. In his long, rambling missive, the partner from Weightmans, a top 45 national law firm, requested I remove my 10 October 2017 post. This I politely declined to do, saying that there was a clear public interest in it remaining publicly accessible. He quoted extensively from my email to Dr Jarvis: evidently Patient’s clinical director had shared it with his client.
  16. I was astonished the solicitor was taking me to task for, among other things, what I’d written in the message to Dr Jarvis. It was addressed to Patient’s clinical director, and not intended for Dr Newson. The health website’s handling of my complaint is an internal matter – or at least it should be.
  17. The Weightmans partner also berated me for what Private Eye wrote about his client. Yet the magazine should answer for its article, which I didn’t write.
  18. Incidentally, the day after I received the threatening letter from her solicitor, Dr Newson announced on Twitter she was looking forward to speaking that night in Birmingham about menopause in the workplace. Where exactly in Brum? Weightmans (screen shot in Figure 6).

    Figure 6. Dr Louise Newson talk at Weightmans in Birmingham on 18 January 2018

  19. I then asked Dr Jarvis in an email whether Patient authors regularly instructed solicitors to write threatening letters to anyone who complains about content, adding “it’s one way to minimise complaints, I suppose!” I concluded: “Seriously, though, I suggest a warning on Patient to anyone contemplating making a complaint about content that he/she could receive a solicitor’s letter on behalf of a member of the editorial team. That way it would be clear.”
  20. At date of publication Patient’s clinical director hasn’t responded to the last email.
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Police Arboretum Memorial Trust exposé in The Times

  1. On 18 July 2017, Billy Kenber, investigations reporter, used my Police Arboretum Memorial Trust exposé (see 13 June 2017 post) as the basis of a report in The Times newspaper.
  2. Kenber’s report (“UK Police Memorial Trust spends £640,000 on private consultants”) is available on the newspaper’s website, behind a paywall: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/uk-police-memorial-trust-spends-640-000-on-private-consultants-shn3cjzcf. Here too is a scanned copy of the page for those like me outside the paywall: The Times 18 July 2017.