Interview: Lynne McTaggart Tell me, doctor...

Sales of Lynne McTaggart's subversive monthly health magazine have reached 25,000. Hester Lacey meets the woman who has become the hypodermic needle in the side of the medical establishment

Hester Lacey
Sunday 15 November 1998 01:02

Lynne McTaggart's offices are about as cluttered as offices can be; every shelf is crammed with books, leaflets, papers and back numbers of What Doctors Don't Tell You, the newsletter that she edits from the two overflowing rooms in Highbury, north London. "We can't fit in even one more filing cabinet," she says in despair. "We have to move!"

Not bad for a project that she started from home, with just the help of her husband. Ten years later, the newsletter is selling 25,000 copies a month and has become a publishing company that employs seven full-time staff and several part-timers, plus researchers and writers. Lynne's aim, as the title What Doctors Don't Tell You suggests, is to take a close look at the facts of modern medicine - in particular, where it fails.

This is a publication that has raised more than a few hackles. An Oxford University professor has called for it to be burned. Its hundredth issue, published in July 1998, included a letter from a doctor that condemns it as "inflammatory, scare-mongering hyperbole". So what are Lynne and her team doing to upset the medical establishment so much? Simply, she says, telling the truth. "It's all about disclosure of information," she explains. "Medicine is a sort of private conversation between doctors. We feel that we have to make this private conversation public; the public has the right to know so they can make informed choices about healthcare."

Her sources, she says, are impeccable: reputable medical journals of all kinds. "In medical literature doctors admit all the flaws; they talk about how mammography isn't working and about how we aren't getting anywhere with breast cancer. But that is not the face they give to the public; to the public they say it's all getting better, we're doing better than ever with cancer, and it's just not true."

Lynne does not set herself up as any kind of medical expert: she is a journalist, pure and simple. "I'm just presenting the information. I'm never prescriptive," she says. "We say 'The evidence shows this; you decide'." She has an editorial panel of 25 doctors she describes as "either pioneers or whistle-blowers on the system"; one, for example, was working on vaccines with the extremely powerful US Food and Drug Administration, and became so disillusioned with safety standards that he left.

Lynne's crusade began a decade ago when she was ill with symptoms that conventional medicine and several alternative therapies failed to cure. Eventually, after two years of chronic illness, she found a doctor who specialised in allergies and nutrition who was able to help. Her experiences led her to remember how, earlier in her career, in her native America, she had worked on the Chicago Tribune with the late Dr Robert Mendelsohn, one of the first doctors who dared to criticise modern medicine. Further freelance work on health and medical issues filled her with even more missionary zeal. She launched What Doctors Don't Tell You in 1989: within a year she had 1,000 subscribers; there are now 25,000 in the UK and the US, and the newsletter led to a series of booklets and brochures, then a book.

Three years ago, she launched Proof!, a newsletter which investigates alternative medicines; it too is doing well, with around 7,000 subscribers. "There's a lot of garbage out there in alternative medicine, a lot of people spending a lot of money, and natural doesn't always mean safe. There are some problems with it," she says. "We wanted to be a sort of consumer association of medicine, alternative and otherwise; Proof!'s the Which? of alternative medicine." Her latest venture is a new magazine, Natural Parent.

Lynne, in her 40s, is friendly and cheerful, the archetypal breezy, up-front American; there is no element of the homespun hippie naturophile about her. But her work makes sobering reading: after all, once you have debunked both conventional and alternative medicine, what's left? "We're not debunking either of them completely," she insists. "We're just trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. Conventional medicine has its place for certain things and alternative medicine has its place. Conventional medicine is fantastic for real emergencies that require all the medicine gadgetry - if you were having an emergency caesarean or if you were dying from an infection and really need an antibiotic. If you have Addison's disease you can get cortisone; if you have diabetes you can get insulin and you can live."

But, she says, for major, chronic illnesses, conventional medicine can suppress the symptoms but not cure the causes. "Your GP has been taught 'We do this because we do this, we've always done it'. But often standard treatments haven't been put to the test to see whether there is evidence that they work and are safe." Like what? "To give just one big example: ultrasound screening for pregnant women is now standard practice. It was never subjected to one single study. There are now some studies looking at ultrasound that are not definitive but disturbing, but we have to stop and ask the questions before we use this technology. Medicine is not conservative; they rush out with breakthroughs; they say 'Gee whiz, we've got this new technology, let's use it!' Everybody gets carried away."

She believes that most doctors are ill-informed about much research. "The doctors aren't the bad guys here; it's the system and the tools they are given. They have a ridiculous schedule - they don't have time. This is my full-time job; they'd need to do two full-time jobs to do what we do here."

She believes that in the past decade there has been a fundamental change in attitude: the public is no longer prepared to revere their doctors. "When we started, the readers were very much less assertive, much more tentative about asking for information. Now they're demanding it much more. What with the Patients' Charter and a bunch of bungling in medicine that has been widely reported, people are getting much more militant."

Doctors too, she says, are slowly changing. "When the newsletter launched and we did radio and TV things, they would always put me up against some doctor. The doctor would say 'You're destroying trust between doctor and patient!' and this sort of stuff. When the book was launched in 1996, I would be pitted against a doctor and the doctor would be agreeing with me. We came away thinking 'We're not radical enough any more!' There's been this whole movement in these last 10 years to much more disclosure and openness, much more partnership between doctor and patient."

Also, she points to evidence of the growing faith in alternative medicine. "Many more patients went to alternative practitioners in the past couple of years than to their own GP - the figures show it both here and in the States. And people are also aware of evidence showing that drugs are the fourth greatest cause of death after heart, cancer and stroke. More and more people are taking this on board and you hear all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds saying 'I don't want to take that drug, I don't like taking drugs, I'd like to try something else'."

However, she says, a certain number of doctors still accuse WDDTY of "writing trash", particularly when they warn of the highly controversial possible dangers of vaccinating children. Lynne is chairing a WDDTY debate on the pros and cons of vaccinations later this month. "We have managed to convince three leading people who are pro-vaccination to come and debate with the people who are anti. I hope that we're getting a reputation for being fair - we're trying to work on that. The fact that we've got these people to be on the same podium, which they usually won't agree to, I think says a lot for the perception of what we are about - we try to give everybody a fair shot."

Five hundred tickets for the debate have already been sold and the rest are expected to go quickly. (For a former event, several hundred people were turned away.) "Our vaccine handbook sells better than everything else we've got," says Lynne. "There is so little information out there, for British parents particularly. It's a big issue, a terribly scary one: you're going to pump antigens into your new, totally healthy baby. Usually, what parents hear on television is a big shout-fest where the two parties are given about two minutes each to try to give their side. Everybody is shouting over each other and there's a lot of emotional stuff.

"We are going to make this a really formal debate, with the chance for the audience to ask a lot of questions. We need to make sure that this is kept an honest and a straightforward debate of the issues, without the emotionalism and hysteria which happen on both sides."

Is injecting us with a regular and healthy dose of unvarnished medical information going to be her life's work? For the foreseeable future, yes, she says. She feels a strong rapport with her readers and believes she is genuinely contributing to society. "Helping others is part of maintaining good health. It gives your life a meaning and a structure, and this is one way of helping others."

'What Doctors Don't Tell You': tel 0171-354 4592. The Vaccine Debate will be held at the Cumberland Hotel, London W1, on Saturday 28 November, 10am-6pm. Booking line 0800 146054, tickets pounds 45 each, pounds 80 for two.


About the Pill

'Most studies have been able to justify that the Pill is safe by turning pregnancy into a dangerous disease. This risk-benefit equation only works if you believe it is better to risk breast cancer, cervical cancer, a stroke or thrombosis - all known risks associated with the Pill - than to have an unwanted baby or to use a condom instead.'

About cancer

'Then-US President Richard Nixon declared the "War on Cancer" in 1971. No cancer incurable then is curable today. Chemotherapy's modest successes are almost identical to what they were then. Since then, all the billions of dollars of research we've thrown at cancer haven't influenced survival one little bit. For most of today's common solid cancers, the ones that cause 90 per cent of the cancer deaths every year ... chemotherapy has never been proved to do any good at all.'

About mercury amalgam dental fillings

'What would you say if you heard that doctors had selected one of the most toxic substances known to man, hadn't bothered to do any safety testing before placing it permanently in your body, and continued to maintain steadfastly that there was no danger whatsoever that any of it was doing you any harm?'

About back pain

'Treatment for back pain aptly demonstrates how knife-happy many surgeons are without much in the way of evidence that operations will do any good.'

About cholesterol

'We have never been able to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between cholesterol and heart disease, only that heart attack victims are assumed to have high cholesterol levels, which in turn are assumed to be the cause of hardened arteries. It's also been assumed that a high dietary cholesterol intake causes a high blood cholesterol level and sets off a chain of events leading to a heart attack. In fact, cholesterol-lowering may be one of the biggest red herrings of the century.'

About doctors

'Many of the treatments we take for granted have been adopted and widely used without one single valid study demonstrating that they are effective and safe. The so-called "gold standard" respected by medical scientists as the only scientific proof of the true worth of a drug or treatment is the randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial ... very few of the treatments considered to be at the very cornerstone of modern medicine have been put to this most basic of tests - or indeed, to any test at all ... New Scientist recently announced on the cover of one issue that 80 per cent of medical procedures used today have never been properly tested.'

About medical research

'The greatest reason that medical research is tainted is that the majority of it is funded by the very companies who stand to gain by certain results. These drug companies not only pay the salaries of researchers, but they can often decide where - indeed, whether - they get published. It's wise to keep in mind that this industry, in a sense, has a vested interest in ill health: if drug companies found cures, rather than lifelong "maintenance" therapies, they'd soon be out of business.'

You should consult a qualified practitioner before making any changes to treatment you are currently receiving or embarking on any new course of treatment

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