Behind Closed Doors
There’s an important meeting happening at NIH today and tomorrow, but you probably know nothing about it. The secrecy of this meeting is intentional, and the implications of decisions made at the meeting are as far-reaching as the Institute of Medicine study. In fact, what I’ve learned about the meeting may strike you as worse than the IOM study process.
- The P2P Working Group roster has not been made public.
- The P2P Working Group will finalize the study questions for the evidence review and workshop.
- I can exclusively reveal who was contracted to conduct that evidence review.
- I can exclusively reveal the draft study questions.
- The P2P panel, which will conduct the Workshop and write its report, will be 100% non-ME/CFS experts.
What Meeting Is This?
January 6-7th is the first meeting of the Working Group for the Pathways to Prevention Workshop on ME/CFS. You may be more familiar with the old name for the meeting, the NIH Evidence-based Methodology Workshop. At the May 2013 CFS Advisory Committee meeting, Dr. Susan Maier clarified the purpose of the Workshop “is to identify methodological and scientific weaknesses in a scientific area and move the field forward through the unbiased and evidence-based assessment of a very complex clinical issue.” The Workshop itself will not create a research definition for ME/CFS, but Dr. Nancy Lee said that the output of the workshop could be used to inform such a definition. (CFSAC Minutes, May 23, 2013, pp. 6, 48-49)
The Pathways to Prevention Program (P2P) is operated through NIH’s Office of Disease Prevention. Each workshop process takes about a year from start to finish, and its foundation is a technical brief providing “an objective description of the state of the science, a summary of ongoing research, and information on research needs.” This brief is prepared by one of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) Evidence-based Practice Centers (EPC).
At today’s meeting, the Working Group will finalize the study questions that frame the entire workshop process. Obviously, the questions are of critical importance since they form the basis for the evidence review and technical brief, as well as the public workshop itself. But before we get to the questions, don’t you want to know who is on the Working Group?
Who Is On This Working Group?
Guess what? We don’t know. At the May 2013 CFSAC meeting, Dr. Maier reported that 35-40 potential names were forwarded to the Office of Disease Prevention for possible service on the Working Group. She said that the list included ME/CFS experts, advocates and patients, including some CFSAC members. Despite vigorous objections expressed by Dr. Mary Ann Fletcher, Dr. Maier did not share the list, did not allow CFSAC to provide input, nor did she indicate a timeline for the release of that roster. (CFSAC Minutes, May 23, 2013, pp. 8, 49)
Unfortunately, Dr. Maier also did not provide the roster at the December 2013 CFSAC meeting and, to my dismay, no one on CFSAC asked her about it. Dr. Maier has also refused an individual request for the roster prior to the meeting, citing “standard procedure,” and there is no indication whether or when that information will be made public.
Why is this a big deal? Because the Working Group helps shape the entire workshop process. According to the P2P site, “the Working Group is involved from the beginning to the end of the workshop planning process; it finalizes the questions that frame the workshop, nominates panelists and speakers, and selects the date of the workshop.” Interestingly, the Working Group is made up of “content area experts from the federal government, academia, and clinical practice.” Dr. Maier said the nomination list included advocates and patients, but we have no way of knowing if any were actually appointed to the Working Group.
The Study Questions
Dr. Beth Collins Sharp described the evidence review process in detail at the May 2013 CFSAC meeting. One of the AHRQ EPCs is contracted to conduct a comprehensive evidence review based on study questions. Those study questions were drafted by unknown federal employees, and are finalized with the input of the Working Group, the EPC and federal participants. This is happening today and tomorrow.
As Dr. Collins-Sharp said in May, “You can’t get the right answer if you don’t ask the right questions.” (CFSAC Minutes, May 23, 2013, p. 12) However, Drs. Maier and Collins-Sharp have refused an individual request for the study questions being presented to the Working Group today, and have said only that the final questions will be posted by AHRQ and ODP but provided no timeline for this. Incidentally, they have also refused to disclose which EPC was contracted to perform this review.
However, I can answer both those questions today because I obtained a copy of the EPC task order through FOIA. The “Small Systematic Review for Diagnosis and Treatment of Myalgic Encephalophyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)” will be conducted by the Oregon Health & Science University for $358,211. I will discuss this contract in more detail in a future post. For now, I draw your attention to the draft questions as stated in the Task Order, and presumably being presented to the Working Group today:
I. How do ME and CFS differ? Do these illnesses lie along the same continuum of severity or are they entirely separate with common symptoms? What makes them different, what makes them the same? What is lacking in each case definition – do the non-overlapping elements of each case definition identify a subset of illnesses or do they encompass the entirety of the population?
II. What tools and measurements will help define the subsets of individuals in the entire spectrum on ME/CFS? Are some of these tools already available and can they reliably detect a subset of illnesses? Is it possible to identify which subset of individuals is not defined by the current tools and measurements? What is unique about the illness quality in those individuals not captured by the tools available?
III. What are the characteristics of the individuals who respond to specific treatments in terms of the spectrum of the disorder? Why do some individuals not respond? What aspect of the disorder is most relieved by specific treatments? For treatments that have been shown to be effective, what are (is) the underlying mechanism(s) of action of that intervention?
IV. What does clinical research on ME/CFS tell us about clinical diagnosis of ME/CFS? Are there hints in the current literature for a consistent defining characteristic? In the clinical realm, what differentiates borderline “cases” into confirmed versus probable? Do co-morbidities help define subsets of the clinical cases?
V. Have previous research findings shaped current clinical practice or are research and clinical practice completely separate with respect to the illness? How much influence does biomedical research help shape [sic] the future of ME/CFS research?
There are so many issues with this list. For starters:
- Asking whether ME and CFS differ is critical (I), but this question fails to ask whether the mixed bag of “CFS” is even a valid clinical entity to begin with. It’s also important to note that the remainder of the questions (II-V) revert to lumping ME and CFS back together as one illness.
- Question II asks what tools/measurements can be used to identify subsets along the whole spectrum, i.e. NOT whether such a “subset” actually represents a separate illness. It also asks if there is a subset not defined by current tools and measurements. Huh? How could a subset be identified if there are no tools/measurements to identify them?
- Question III, the characteristics of patients who do or do not respond to treatment, rests in part on case definition. Will a systematic review dig into the raw data on studies such as the PACE trial or Ampligen trials to identify characteristics of responders and non-responders? Can applicable case definitions in those study cohorts even be assessed retrospectively (e.g. to examine a Fukuda cohort to see how many met the Canadian criteria)? Will the systematic review treat studies with different case definitions as equivalent (e.g. Oxford studies are as valid and relevant as Fukuda studies)?
- Question IV strikes me as the question actually being posed in the IOM study. The IOM will be identifying the evidence for various diagnostic criteria, and then develop evidence-based clinical diagnostic criteria. Including the same type of question here seems needlessly duplicative. And what if the two evidence reviews come up with different answers?
- Finally, I can answer Question V myself: it’s both. There are a number of key clinician-researchers who maintain a clinical ME/CFS practice and conduct research. For those individuals, their research influences their clinical care and vice versa. But for the rest of the world, we know that clinical care is completely divorced from ME/CFS research. Based on the horror stories we hear from patients, based on the dramatic under-diagnosis of the disease and simultaneous use of CFS as a wastebasket diagnosis, I think it is abundantly clear that research and clinical practice is separated by a great wall for most patients.
The Working Group’s planning appears to be closed to the public, and we have no input onto the final questions. We wouldn’t even have this draft list if I had not managed to file a successful FOIA request. The anonymous Working Group will finalize the questions, and these will be posted publicly – although we have no timeline for that.
Non-Experts By Design
Supposedly, the Working Group is made up of ME/CFS experts. That’s the impression Dr. Maier gave at the May 2013 meeting, and by the P2P website. But the P2P Panel is a completely different story.
The P2P Panelists perform several functions: review the evidence report produced by the AHRQ review; attend a pre-Workshop webinar to discuss the evidence report and additional materials; attend the Workshop and ask questions of the presenters; prepare a draft panel report; and review and incorporate public comments to finalize the report.
Panelists can be nominated by members of the Working Group BUT there are significant restrictions on their expertise. Specifically, the panelists:
- May be knowledgeable about the general topic under consideration, but must not have published on or have a publicly-stated opinion on the topic.
- Must not have intellectual conflicts, such as participation in statements by professional societies or participation in advocacy groups on the topic.
- Must not hold financial or career (research) interests in the workshop topic.
Let’s be very clear about what this means. If someone has ever published on or made a public statement about the diagnosis and treatment of ME/CFS, he/she is disqualified. If someone has participated in statements from professional societies or participated in advocacy groups, he/she is disqualified. If someone has a financial or research interest in the diagnosis and treatment of ME/CFS, he/she is disqualified. Furthermore, there is no public comment period on the panel roster like there was for the IOM panel. In fact, it’s not even clear to me how far in advance we will know who has been appointed to the panel.
If the IOM process makes you mad, then this process should make you furious. There will be no ME/CFS experts on the panel that writes the Workshop report identifying methodological and scientific weakness in ME/CFS, suggesting research needs, and providing “an unbiased, evidence-based assessment of a complex public health issue.” The only involvement of experts will be through the Working Group and through the presentations made at the Workshop. I only see one upside to this arrangement: anyone who has been associated with the psychogenic model of ME/CFS will also be excluded.
This process may work very well for the “generally noncontroversial topics” that P2P is designed to address. For example, I can easily imagine the benefit of non-experts examining the state of research for a rare genetic disease. Only one other disease has been examined through P2P: polycystic ovary syndrome. The P2P workshop examined the current diagnostic criteria, causes and risk factors, and prevention and treatment strategies. There were only four panel members: an obstetrician-gynecologist, a cardiologist, the executive director of the American College of Nurse-Midwives, and the Executive Dean for Research at the Mayo Clinic. No patients or advocates spoke at this Workshop. It is not clear to me how well received the panel’s recommendations were in the PCOS patient community.
There are obvious problems with trying to apply this process in ME/CFS. First, there is no single body system to focus upon. While the PCOS Workshop could draw on endocrinologists, gynecologists and women’s health experts, what is the specialty pool for ME/CFS? Second, it is well known, and I believe generally accepted, that doctors and researchers without ME/CFS expertise will still have preconceptions about the disease. We need look no further than FDA for an example. It wasn’t until after the four-hour active listening session in April 2013 that FDA representatives, by their own admission, began to understand the seriousness of the disease, and this was a group of people who were familiar with ME/CFS to some extent. If the P2P panel is comprised of people with little ME/CFS knowledge and possibly negative preconceptions, and the Workshop does not include significant participation from ME/CFS patients and advocates, it seems unlikely that the best results will be achieved. Based on our decades of experience with misinformed scientists, clinicians, and policy makers, it is very hard to trust in such a process.
Almost the entire process of this Workshop is being conducted behind closed doors. The Working Group roster has not been released. The Working Group meeting is not open to the public. The draft questions were obtained only through a FOIA. There is no information about when the final questions will be posted. We have no idea who will be on the Panel, or even who will make that decision. And the only way ME/CFS experts are likely to participate is through the Working Group (IF there are any on the Working Group) and through presentations at the meeting. The extent to which members of the public will be able to participate is completely unclear.
So if you are worried about the lack of ME/CFS experts on the IOM panel, or if you think that the public will not have a sufficient opportunity to participate in the IOM process, pay attention! The NIH P2P process looks even worse. We cannot lose sight of the forest for the trees, and IOM is not the only moving piece on this chessboard.
What can we do? I believe that advocates must demand more information about the P2P Workshop, and must demand meaningful opportunities to participate. The planning and execution of the Workshop should be transparent if it is to have any legitimacy in the advocacy community. I urge you to participate in both the IOM and P2P processes at every opportunity – ask questions, provide input, and present a united front based on the truths we know about ME/CFS. We cannot wait until the end of the P2P process to make our voices heard, especially since this process will provide input into the IOM study.