Protecting the public in the name of Nightingale
OPINION:An innovative project was set up in 2010 to challenge misleading claims in healthcare advertising, writes PAUL O'DONOGHUE
The Nightingale Collaboration was set up in 2010 by husband and wife team Alan Henness and Maria MacLachlan. Their primary aim is to share knowledge and experience in challenging misleading claims in healthcare advertising and to encourage anyone concerned with protecting the public from misinformation to do likewise.
The collaboration is named in honour of Florence Nightingale, and 2010 was the centenary of her death. Many readers will know of her as a nurse during the Crimean War, but she was also a dedicated feminist, social reformer and a brilliant statistician, being the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.
She was also committed to the clear communication of knowledge to all, writing in plain language and developing graphic representations of statistical data, which she used to good effect in educating the politicians of her time with regard to the need for health reforms. She established the first secular school of nursing at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, which is now part of King’s College London.
The Nightingale Collaboration produces a regular newsletter that outlines its activities and the results of complaints made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). In January of this year the newsletter reported on a BBC investigation of Ainsworths, one of Britain’s most prominent homeopathic pharmacies. A researcher posing as the mother of an unvaccinated child wrote to Tony Pinkus, the managing director and superintendent pharmacist at Ainsworths, asking if he could recommend a homeopathic alternative to the mainstream vaccine for whooping cough.
His reply contained the following: “Whereas I have been dispensing homeopathic pertussin 30C for 30 years for this purpose – and made sure I gave it to my own children, I am unable to make a claim for its success as there have been no successful trials reported.” Without going into detail, a 30C solution contains one part in 1 followed by 60 zeros. In other words, it contains nothing but water.
Pinkus emphasises in his email to the researcher that “we are making no claims here”. However, when asked if the child should get the mainstream vaccine anyway, he states: “Personally I would use the pertussin 30C alone and did with my own children, who are now adults and never had a problem. In fact they have had no vaccines.” The pertussin 30C is available from the Ainsworths website.
Ainsworths had previously been successfully challenged via the ASA in 2011 and Pinkus was reported to his statutory regulator, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC). According to the BBC programme he was investigated by the GPC, but no further action ensued as he had taken “remedial action”. This has not prevented him communicating inaccurate and potentially dangerous advice regarding the fantasy that is homeopathic vaccination.
One of the most active supporters of homeopathy and other complementary and alternative-health interventions is Prince Charles. In an editorial published last year in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, he argues strongly for “integrated medicine” by which he means “the kind of care that integrates the best of new technology and current knowledge with ancient wisdom”.
The problem is that much of the ancient wisdom is in fact ancient twaddle. While practitioners of modern medicine arguably have a lot to learn from alternative practitioners – generally being better listeners, more patient and spending more time with clients – what the latter have to offer is often highly questionable.
Florence Nightingale was exemplary in her use of mathematics and statistics to support her nursing endeavours. This attitude is reflected in the current emphasis on evidence-based medicine and evidence-supported therapies. On the alternative side are claims supported almost entirely by anecdote and testimonial, which are undoubtedly very powerful with regard to influencing the public.
A child receiving a homeopathic vaccine is not vaccinated and is placed in danger, no matter how convincing the testimonials may appear. The work of the Nightingale Collaboration is a call to arms to all those who care about public health and safety and the integrity of science and modern medicine.
Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society.firstname.lastname@example.org.