Must we follow the doctor's orders?

Shocked by her own experiences, Lynne McTaggart has declared war on the medical profession. And the docs are fighting back. Maxine Frith enters the fray
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It would be safe to say that Lynne McTaggart does not have a very high opinion of modern medicine. "Little more than 21st-century voodoo", a "false science" and "knife-happy surgeons" are just three of the accusations that she levels at doctors and their methods within the first few pages of the latest version of her book on the subject. While conceding that most medics are not mass-murderers in the style of Harold Shipman, she nevertheless accuses them of foisting unreliable tests, unnecessary surgery and unproven drugs on their patients, and often doing more harm than good.

It would be safe to say that Lynne McTaggart does not have a very high opinion of modern medicine. "Little more than 21st-century voodoo", a "false science" and "knife-happy surgeons" are just three of the accusations that she levels at doctors and their methods within the first few pages of the latest version of her book on the subject. While conceding that most medics are not mass-murderers in the style of Harold Shipman, she nevertheless accuses them of foisting unreliable tests, unnecessary surgery and unproven drugs on their patients, and often doing more harm than good.

Her mission in What Doctors Don't Tell You is to explode the myths around conventional medicine and to inform patients about the risks that, she claims, are all too often hidden from them. And she turns the medical establishment's own weapons on itself, trawling hundreds of medical journals, websites and research papers for evidence to back up her claims.

She says: "One glance at the statistics shows that, except in the case of getting run over or needing a Caesarean, orthodox Western medicine not only won't cure you but may leave you worse off than before. In fact, these days, scientific medicine itself is responsible for a good percentage of disease." The simple fact, according to McTaggart, is that "your doctor often doesn't know what he's doing".

Born in America to Italian immigrant parents, McTaggart trained as a journalist and has no medical background. Now 53, her zeal stems from a period in the late 1980s when, as her first marriage collapsed and other stressful events occurred, she became chronically ill with a variety of symptoms, including eczema, multiple allergies, irritable bowel syndrome and severe depression.

After three "hopeless" years of visiting scores of doctors and alternative-health experts, McTaggart decided to do her own research, and diagnosed herself with polysystemic chronic candidiasis - a condition that she describes as "thrush of the body". She found a sympathetic and "extraordinary" doctor and nursed herself back to health with food supplements, dietary changes and conventional drugs.

This is her central thesis - that conventional medicine can work, but doctors should listen more to patients, and patients should listen more to their own bodies, instead of blindly following medical orthodoxy.

"It seemed to me that patients were more likely to get better so long as they were in charge of the decision-making about their care," she says. "True healing could only begin if a dialogue existed between doctor and patient, a shared responsibility. Healing isn't simply a matter of finding the right drug or right operation, but a complex process of accepting responsibility for your own life."

Inspired by her own experience, and encouraged by her second husband, the writer Bryan Hubbard, McTaggart set up an internet-based health newsletter called What Doctors Don't Tell You in 1988. The letter now has thousands of subscribers, who regularly write to tell of their botched surgery, severe misdiagnoses and arrogant doctors.

"Outrage is now the passion that powers the newsletter," McTaggart says. "I am livid every time I open my post. Each morning, I wade through piles of letters containing heart-rending stories of personal catastrophe - children who have been killed, or husbands and wives mutilated or incapacitated through medicine.

"When we study their cases, we usually discover that the dangers of the treatments given to them were well known, their doctors just hadn't bothered to communicate this vital information to them."

Her starting point is that modern medicine is too quick to intervene and invade, in everything from pregnancy to depression. Among her bugbears are ultrasound pregnancy scans and foetal heart monitoring, which she says have turned conception and childbirth into a disease. She also casts doubt on the usefulness and efficacy of screening programmes for breast and cervical cancer, pointing out the high rate of faulty results involved.

And, if the theories behind prevention and diagnosis are, in her view, on dodgy scientific ground, then treatment is even more so. According to WDDTY figures, one in six people in hospital is there because of a medical treatment that has gone wrong. Once in hospital, you have an 8 per cent chance of being injured or dying as a result of mistakes on the part of the staff. In all, McTaggart claims, 1.17 million Britons end up in hospital because of doctor's error or a bad reaction to a drug.

Drugs companies are too quick to get their drugs on the market, and doctors are too busy to read all the literature relating to risks and benefits, she says, hence patients becoming guinea pigs for medicines and treatments. "Medicine's own scientific literature offers overwhelming evidence that some of it not only doesn't work, but is highly dangerous. This is a belief system so fixed, so inherent, that any truth to the contrary is dismissed as virtual blasphemy. Medicine is currently practised as a private conversation by doctors, for doctors."

She is careful not to advocate wholesale rejection of all conventional medicine (she can be equally scathing about the lack of effective control of alternative therapies), but she suggests that many tests and vaccines recommended by doctors are unnecessary, and patients should question all the treatments and drugs they are prescribed before consenting to them.

She has won the enthusiastic endorsements of alternative therapists and nutritionists such as Dr Gillian McKeith, of the TV show You Are What You Eat, who describes her as a "pioneer and innovator in the field of health". But, for someone who has an advisory board of 25 "top doctors" to assess the research and evidence she uses, some of McTaggart's opinions are extreme. She questions the link between HIV and Aids, citing long-discredited research, and casts doubt on the anti-retroviral drugs used.

In a diatribe against the contraceptive pill, she cites a study that found that 97 per cent of women aged 36 who contracted breast cancer had taken the pill at some point. Given the huge use of the pill among women of that age, this is perhaps unsurprising, and does not reflect the most recent research that, while it does carry a slightly increased risk of breast cancer, it can protect against other forms of cancer. And much of the research that she says is hidden from patients has also been widely communicated by doctors in the past five years.

Unsurprisingly, the medical establishment is not too keen on McTaggart's opinions, nor the possible impact of her book on the public's trust in doctors. They accuse her of twisting statistics to support her own theories, and of failing to recognise the benefits to millions of some of the tests and treatments she so derides.

Dr Jim Kennedy, who chairs the prescribing committee of the Royal College of GPs, says: "We strongly support patients taking an interest in their health and the decisions being made about their care: we want them to be informed consumers about their healthcare." But he adds: "Doctors are not the fount of all knowledge, and we do make mistakes, but there are a lot of checks and balances to minimise the risks of us cocking up.

"It is interesting that the very things [McTaggart] accuses us of are the things that she does herself - being overconfident, being dogmatic, giving everything a biased interpretation. I don't think this book is going to help anyone, and frankly, it could be dangerous if people refuse treatments on the basis of the information. In the end, does everyone really want to become their own cardiac surgeon, their own consultant, their own GP? There comes a point where you have to put some confidence in the experts."

Professor Vivienne Nathanson, the head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, also believes that McTaggart is unnecessarily harsh on doctors. "I think that the vast majority of doctors would accept that medicine does not have the answer to everything, and that, certainly in the past, we have been poor communicators," she says. "But we have done a lot of training around communication and information in recent years.

"Doctors do not lie to their patients and we do not withhold information, but we cannot just present them with a load of raw data and expect them to make choices. Patients are all different, and some do want to be able to say, 'What would you recommend, doctor?'."

Professor Nathanson concludes: "It would be a tragedy if people dismissed screening or other conventional medicine on the basis of this book."

'What Doctors Don't Tell You: The Truth About the Dangers of Modern Medicine', by Lynne McTaggart, is published by Thorsons (£14.99)

McTAGGART'S DIAGNOSIS

Here is a summarised selection of the opinions held by Lynne McTaggart:

SCREENING

* Cervical cancer screening has not led to any reduction in deaths from the disease, but has resulted in unnecessary treatment and surgery because of faulty results. Up to 13 per cent of smear tests are "false positives", meaning that women are told there's something wrong when there isn't, and 20 per cent are "false negatives", where a patient is wrongly given the all-clear. The recommended treatment for pre-cancerous cells, picked up by the smear tests, can damage the cervix and affect a woman's chances of carrying a baby to term.

BACK SURGERY

* "Knife-happy" surgeons operate on patients without any evidence that the procedure will do any good, while it will often make things worse.

* Up to 20 per cent of people who undergo surgery have "the failed back" - the official term given to people with chronic, considerable back pain that doctors can't fix.

* One of the most popular operations, in which a disc is removed, only relieves pain in half of patients.

* Surgery can cause scarring and pressure on nerves, leading to more pain and intervention.

* According to Professor Gordon Waddell of Glasgow's Western Infirmary, only 1 per cent of patients with low back disorders experience "dramatic success" from surgery.

PREGNANCY

* Ultrasound scans are linked to poorer outcomes for the baby, greater risk of premature birth and miscarriage and higher rates of Caesarean sections.

* During a scan, the unborn child is exposed to 100-decibel sounds - the equivalent of a Tube train arriving at a station.

* Early tests for Down syndrome are inaccurate, and only 20 per cent of Down babies are actually detected.

ASTHMA DRUGS

* Inhalers containing albuterol and fenoterol - drugs known as beta-agonists - have been associated with an increased risk of death.

* Ventolin inhalers have side-effects, including sudden lowering of blood pressure and swelling around the heart.

* Regular use of beta-agonists can reduce lung function.

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