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GPs are the deplorables of medicine

Brexit and the Trump election. These events have filled plenty of column inches but how this impacts on a sore throat on a wet Wednesday in Widnes is anybody’s guess. This hasn’t stopped the liberal soul searching. Seemingly it is simply ignorant ‘white van men’ in the UK and ‘Deplorables’ in the USA that are to blame for everything. But truth is more uncomfortable than this binary scapegoating.

We are the deplorables of medicine

We the privileged ‘remaining’ elite have our lifestyles off the backs of ordinary men and women. The wealth disparity is huge and social mobility is as common as unicorn on a skateboard smoking a cigar. People are simply fed up with being told how to think, what to say, by an indulged liberal authoritarian elite. An elite intolerant of any dissent, who gives mere lip service of caring for the plight of ordinary working people. 

I am an intellectual chav but this doesn’t mean I don’t understand medical research. The zenith of my undergraduate career is a solitary second class merit in Biochemistry and my postgraduate career was spent in the gleaming spires of Sunderland, Lowestoft and Glasgow. Medical statistics are used to intimidate and confuse but in truth are little more than primary school arithmetic. If a medication works then you hardly need research, for example penicillin. If something doesn’t really work, you need thousands of patients, over years to grind out the positive results. This is the case for the mega-studies into hypertension, cholesterol and osteoporosis. The benefits may be ‘statistically’ significant but in absolute terms the clinical benefits are clinically insignificant. This is the treatment paradox – the overwhelming majority of patients taking medications for decades never directly benefit. GPs know this but prescribe because of guidelines and for fear being denounced and reported, Today’s we live with authoritarian medical correctness.

The Politburo at NICE are considering lowering the hypertension targets to 120/90 [1]. This is based on the SPRINT study of tight hypertension control in older people (average age of 68) published in the highbrow ‘New England Journal of Medicine’. Reading the paper, the numbers needed to treat to prevent stroke death is 1,500 per year and the NNTs to prevent cardiovascular death 500 per year [2]. These are big numbers but consider that an identical study on tight control, called ACCORD, showed no benefit at all [3]. Also a recent Cochrane review challenges whether treating ‘mild hypertension’ is any better than giving patients a placebo [4]. Most telling of all, however, is the numbers need to harm by tight control with ‘serious adverse events’ (falls, syncope, renal failure). In this SPRINT study this was 250 per year.

The signs are that NICE is once again engaging in overhyped numerically illiterate propaganda that will have unforeseen consequences for ordinary people.

This lower target will march into the management of younger populations despite no evidence of benefit. More medication for all, more reviews and ever more pressure in general practice. Modern medicine is making the population paranoid, stealing away wellbeing and undermining life generally. The distant medical elite don’t listen and talks down to GPs. We are the white van men and women of medicine doing the work no one else can do, or is willing to do. Vilified in the media and always to blame. We are the deplorables of medicine, but what to do?

Dr Des Spence is a GP in Maryhill, Glasgow, and a tutor at the University of Glasgow