Unicough: Sadly not as good as unicorns.

Another day and another new cough medicine has mysteriously appeared on pharmacy shelves.  It’s called Unicough® (Infirst), and it claims to work by:

addressing the hypersensitivity of the cough reflex, which makes it suitable for dry, tickly and chesty coughs
— http://www.chemistanddruggist.co.uk/news/new-cough-syrup-pharmacy-only#sthash.toAK6A2l.dpuf (subscription required)
source: http://www.infirst.co.uk/were-working-on/unicough

source: http://www.infirst.co.uk/were-working-on/unicough

Riiiight. Regular readers will by now know that most cough medicines are absolute nonsense, with little to no evidence of effectiveness. I’m particularly suspicious of products (like this one and Bronchostop, for example), which claim to be able to work on any type of cough. Chesty and dry coughs happen through different mechanisms, so a product that claims to treat all types seems more likely to not work for any. An exception to this would be a simple demulcent like simple linctus, which acts just by coating the throat for a little while. 

Am I right to be suspicious about this product? Well dear friends, lets take a deep, objective breath and dive into the evidence, hoping beyond hope that maybe this time… this time… it might not be a nonsense product. 

Is it actually a medicine? Or is it just pretending? 

Unlike most new over the counter products which all turn out to be medical devices masquerading as real medicines, this product is actually, genuinely a Real Life Medicine. It even has a Real Life License, for the symptomatic relief of common coughs associated with upper respiratory tract congestion. What larks! What a time to be alive!

This means that the manufacturer will have proven three broad things in order to receive the license: safety, efficacy, and quality. We’re not out of the woods yet, by any means, but this is probably the most promising start to an OTC medicines review I’ve done so far.

It contains diphenhydramine 14 mg (an antihistamine, which as a side effect will make you sleepy), ammonium chloride 135 mg (irritates the airways, therefore is supposed to loosen up any mucus and help you cough it up- aka an expectorant), and levomenthol 1.1mg (minty, therefore feels a bit soothing and cooling). Despite Infirst’s hopes that Unicough will “reshape the approach to acute common coughs”, there are no exciting or revolutionary technologies here. All of these drugs are old as the hills, and very similar products (Benylin Chesty Cough Original) have been widely available for pretty much forever.  

Furthermore, it is a totally irrational combination of drugs. You’ve got an antihistamine, which acts to dry up secretions, nestling up alongside an expectorant, which is supposed to promote loosening up secretions. Those two actions work against each other and cancel each other out, rendering the whole thing pretty darn pointless. 

If it's licensed, that means that there is evidence that it works though, right?

Ummm… no. It seems that it’s managed to get its license on the basis of being exactly the same (save for flavouring) as another product called Histalix®. That product got its license in 1999, seemingly on the basis of thin air. It’s safe to say that back then licensing for OTC products was rather less rigorous than these days, and “but it’s been around for a while now” used to be a legitimate reason to grant a license. Now, I can’t find the information that the manufacturers of Histalix® presented at the time, but I’m guessing it’s probably not a whole suite of robust, well designed trials.

An article about the product in Chemist+Druggist magazine gave some vague details about a trial:

A randomised study of 163 patients co-ordinated by King’s College Hospital, London, found that the cocoa-based formulation was more effective at reducing the frequency of coughs and the disrupted sleep caused by coughs than simple linctus, Infirst Healthcare said
— http://www.chemistanddruggist.co.uk/news/new-cough-syrup-pharmacy-only#sthash.toAK6A2l.dpuf

This trial, however, doesn’t appear to be published anywhere. I contacted the manufacturers asking for more information about it and was, perhaps predictably, met with silence. Without knowing how the trial was designed, and what the results were, we will have to just discount it; it’s the medical equivalent of being told that no, this Rolex watch someone wants to sell you for £20 is definitely not a fake, honest guvnor. It’s worth noting too that the comparator they used, simple linctus, is no better than placebo itself. 

Searches of the medical literature found a great deal of nothing, either. I searched for both Unicough® and Histalix® too, as well as the combination of ingredients, to no avail. Yes, it might help you get to sleep at night thanks to the antihistamine side effects, but I wish they would be honest about that in their marketing. You’ll sleep because you’ve been knocked out by drugs, not because its made any difference to your cough. 

Is it safe? 

On the whole, there probably aren't any major safety concerns here. Drowsiness is going to be the main problem with it, and as with all things that can cause drowsiness there is a possibility of dependence. Other effects could be dry mouth and urinary retention. It can interact with a few different medicines. Of course there is always the potential issue of self-treatment of a persistent cough, and masking of symptoms that could suggest a more malignant cause. 

The practicalities

Any product which causes drowsiness is going to be severely limited in its usefulness through the day. If you drive, work, or even just don’t want to be asleep all day, then you’re going to have to avoid this product, or you might even end up having to buy two lots of pointless medicines; one for day and this one for night. Additionally, antihistamine-induced sleep can often leave you feeling still quite drowsy the next morning, and some people can even feel quite hungover. It’s not going to be ideal if you have to be up early for work, or if you drive early in the morning.

The unique selling point of this product is the taste. It's cocoa-based, which I'm sure is pleasant, but it aint going to make a blind bit of difference to your cough. I even wonder whether a pleasant taste might have a detrimental effect on any placebo effect: if it doesn't taste like medicine, then you might get less of a response. 

Is the cost reasonable?

Whoah, £8.85 for 150 mL? Give over! There is absolutely, categorically no way that this product is worth that amount. 

TL:DR! Is it worth a punt? 

Nope. There’s no evidence it works, and the combination of ingredients in it makes no sense. Save your money and invest in some cheap simple linctus or glycerine, honey and lemon to soothe your throat instead. The best cure for a post-infective cough is time. Look after yourself, rest, drink plenty, and eat well. If your cough doesn’t go away after about three weeks, get yourself checked over. I know that coughs can be awful, annoying, embarrassing, and exhausting, but –and I’m sorry to have to tell you this- nothing will get rid of it instantaneously, or even any quicker than using nothing at all, so you might as well save your pennies. 

A Mahoosive Thank You

Last month, in a drunken moment of possible madness, I decided to set up a Patreon page. I did so hoping that even setting the page up might work as a driver to overcome the writer's block that has been cursing me for too long. I set the target amount as a dollar, and limited paid posts to these OTC product reviews, because I think there is a real gap in the market for them, and ultimately they will hopefully help people save money. 

To my utter astonishment, four kindly patrons stepped up and made pledges. I doff my cap to you and can't thank you enough. 

Shaun Sellars
Alex Brown
Jack Wright
Bevin Flynn

If you enjoy these sorts of posts, find them useful, and have more money than sense, then I'll just leave this here

Literature Search terms:

Embase: unicough (freetext, ti.ab) Histalix (freetext, ti.ab) *Diphenhydramine AND *Menthol AND *Ammonium chloride

References: http://www.infirst.co.uk/were-working-on/unicough https://www.medicines.org.uk/emc/medicine/31365 https://www.medicines.org.uk/emc/medicine/11171 http://www.mhra.gov.uk/home/groups/par/documents/websiteresources/con553668.pdf http://www.mhra.gov.uk/home/groups/spcpil/documents/spcpil/con1445576593772.pdf

Is SoreFix a sore loser?

Cold sores truly are the devil's work. The pesky little blighters make a habit of cropping up at the worst moment, crushing your self confidence within a mere matter of hours. 

Given that cancelling everything and holing yourself up in a darkened room until it has gone away tends not to be all that practical for most of us, It's no surprise that folk are desperate for something that really works, and fast. I've already written about several other new cold sore products on this here blog, neither of which are the miracle cures they're marketed as. 

Enter Sorefix, a product selling itself as a new all-round product to both treat and prevent cold sores. Interestingly, the manufacturers claim that it even works after the cold sore has come out, which if true would make it a really useful product. 

In case you are too late to prevent a cold sore, SoreFix relieves symptoms such as itching, burning and the blisters on or around the lips and it speeds up the healing process. So prevent feeling embarrassed and choose SoreFix!
— http://www.sorefix.com/sorefix-cold-sore/

Medicine vs Medical Device? 

Once again, this product isn't a medicine. It seems that nearly every new OTC product these days is actually a medical device masquerading as a medicine, and this is no exception. It might look like a medicine, it might be sold in pharmacies, and the manufacturers might even make claims that make it sound like a medicine, but nay, it is in fact a medical device. Essentially, this means that the need for good quality, robust evidence of efficacy before marketing is virtually non-existent. Le sigh.

The evidence   

Usually, the first step in finding evidence for how a product works is to find out what is actually in the product. This is proving quite difficult for Sorefix, as all I can find is some vague statements about "two zinc salts". hmph. Ah well, I shall have to make do with what I can. What i am particularly interested in is the claim that Sorefix can reduce healing times for a cold sore once it is already out. 

The manufacturers themselves don't bother with providing any cursory clinical trial data. This is unusual, and sort of  refreshing in a way; at least they aren't trying to palm off some nonsense animal studies as irrefutable evidence. It does, however, leave me with even less of a start than I normally would have for these sorts of posts. 

A quick Google search found nothing whatsoever, so I delved into the medical literature in a Medline and Embase search to see if there is any studies looking at the effects of zinc on cold sores. As I can't find which exact zinc salts are in the product, I just did a search for zinc. I found a grand total of three results, none of which were relevant. 

I did manage to find some information about the topical use of zinc in a trusted database. It seems that there is some, very limited data which suggests that some specific zinc-containing products, none of which are Sorefix, may reduce the duration of symptoms by a grand total of 1.5 days, and that's only if used within 24 hours of onset. There is also some evidence that zinc isn't effective for recurrent infections, which is probably going to be pretty much everyone. 

So it seems that I can find nothing at all to back up any of the manufacturers claims at this point. I've contacted them to see if they have any further information, and it'll be really interesting to see if I ever get anything back. 

Safety

Safety-wise, it's very difficult to comment on without knowing what exactly is actually in it. The manufacturers say you shouldn't use it if you are very sensitive to any of the ingredients, though of course they don't tell you what they are. Helpful much :S

The practicalities

The key with cold sore treatments is that you need to start using them before they appear, and you need to use them regularly. Despite what the manufacturers seem to be saying, it would appear that this product is no different. It doesn't contain an antiviral, but the limited amount of evidence looking at the effects of zinc for cold sores suggest that it needs to used every two hours in order to have an effect. That's a lot of applications per day, and I think it's unlikely that most people will be able to keep up with it for any reasonable amount of time. It's worth noting that, because cold sores can worsen quickly, this probably does include overnight too.

I really like the idea of having something to use for prevention, but its hard to remember to apply something at the best of times.  Its even harder if you haven't got a throbbing mass of evil reminding you of its presence constantly.  Given the lack of evidence for prevention, there is no specific guidance on how often you are supposed to use it in order to prevent a cold sore, but I suspect its going to have to be very regularly. 

The cost

It costs £7.47 for a jar or tub of this stuff. Although that's quite similar to other new products for cold sores, it's waaay more expensive than generic aciclovir or plain old vaseline. 

So, is it worth a shot? 

At this time, no. I can't see anything to suggest it's any better than existing treatments. I'll be interested to see if I get anything back from the manufacturers, but I can't see any reason why this product would work, and there is certainly no evidence to back up their claims.

Unfortunately, when it comes to cold sores, time is the best healer, especially once they are out and proud.  If it hurts, then use painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen. If its still at the tingling stage, go for topical aciclovir, but make sure you get a cheap generic version rather than Zoivirax: its exactly the same stuff. It's not going to make much difference once its already taken hold though, and at this point you're better off just using something like vaseline to keep it as supple as possible. 

Hxxx

 

Words are important

This is a guest blog written by the wonderful Cathryn Brown (@cathrynjbrown). Not only is Cathryn is an amazing community pharmacist, she's also involved in teaching pharmacy students at the University of Lancashire. She's smart, brave, honest, and a great friend. It's a pleasure to host her writings here. Hope you enjoy:

We were tidying up the office at home again the other day when I happened across an old Medicines, Ethics and Practice Guide. Flipping through the index, “Addicts” struck me as odd. There was no “see also: Drug misuse, drug misusers, or “people who misuse drugs and other substances.” Instead, a whole, diverse, nebulous group of people and stories, from all sorts of backgrounds, we summed up with one stark word: Addicts.

This got me thinking about how the use of language within pharmacy has changed since I qualified, and how we can make even more positive changes.

I've spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about how I refer to people and patients. I've carefully avoided labelling people as “asthmatics” or “Epileptics”, preferring “people with asthma” etc instead. I assumed that this people-first language would apply across all groups. But my assumptions were challenged when I happened across an article which suggested that the opposite may be for the best for some autistic people. It made me realise that a blanket approach doesn't work, and that it is important to ask the patient themselves how they would like to be described. (As an aside, I found that article through the Emergency Chat app, which is amazingly helpful for anyone who sometimes feels overwhelmed.)

When I first started teaching on the UCLan MPharm course, we used to ask our students to identify “what a patient might be suffering from” in dispensing classes. Just that one little question presents so many problems. Labelling people as patients, assuming that they are suffering, that their illness defines them. Nowadays, we ask “what might the medicine on this prescription be used to treat?”. My hope is, that by changing the words, we can also change our students' perception about the people they will go on to look after. I'm hoping that they'll start to see people less as suffering patients, and more as fellow people with individual needs.

I also wonder sometimes whether our approach as a profession to patient and public involvement creates a barrier between them and us. Does the way we act cause our students to think of patients as exhibits? “These are the patients we’ve brought you to meet with today, none of the rest of us are patients, oh no…” And do these barriers affect our students, do they see patients as “other” and think that they themselves should never be unwell?

When I refer to my own mental health, I will refer to myself as “bonkers” or “crazy in the head”. That's okay for me to say about myself, but I would hate to think that a health professional would refer to me like that. I know that’s odd, and maybe if we discussed it, then I would let them join in with me, but I would hate to see a consultant’s letter that went to my GP saying “Thank you for referring this bonkers lady to me”. I think it’s easier for me to think about myself as a person with depression, rather than a depressive.

When a friend of mine visited his GP for depression, the doctor described him as “feeling a bit down”. Now, perhaps his Doctor was too scared to use the “D” word. Perhaps he thought he would be resigning the patient to a life of darkness and gloom. But instead, all it did was dismiss the hell he was going through, and on a practical level it also didn't look great on his sick note.

I guess I'd like asking how a person would like to be described to become as ubiquitous a question as “do you take any other medicines?”. Whether someone is gay, trans*, black, a person of colour, a person of faith, Christian, a diabetic, a person living with epilepsy or all of the above, we should be able to ask them who they think they are and respond appropriately. We also need to start being truly patient centred, and let our patients lead the conversations where they want them to go, and if that’s hard to begin with – let’s start a conversation within the profession and see where it goes. Don’t forget there’s lots of help out there, and lots of ways to improve the way we communicate with patients, the public, and other health professionals.


 

Cathryn xx

 

Discussing homeopathy on Rip Off Britain

it's been so long since my last post, for which I apologise. I have had a fairly severe case of Writer's Block. But I figure helping out on a national TV programme is worth a few words, right?

if you go down to i-player today (or within the next 20-odd days), you won't find a teddy bears picnic, but you will find yesterday's episode of Rip-off Britain, featuring one of the smartest, bravest community pharmacists I know. And the subject is our old nemesis, homeopathy. 

A few months ago, I got an e-mail asking if I would be willing to help provide some background information to the show. I jumped at the chance, though I was also a little wary, in case it became a hatchet job for the whole profession.

but I decided the risk was worth it, and so had a conversation with a very nice chap one evening, in which I essentially ranted on for a long time whilst made notes. I gave him the background on how pharmacists are regulated, and the difference in roles between the RPS and GPhc. I told him about how I thought homeopathy breached our professional standards if not sold correctly.I told him about how, if I'm in a pub talking about homeopathy, I'll often collect together various pint glasses in order to better demonstrate the dilution process, and how people are then usually amazed and outraged when they realise that homeopathic medicines contain no active ingredient. Most importantly of all, I told him my theory that most pharmacists who sell homeopathy badly do so because of a lack of knowledge, rather than a willful way of exhorting money from poorly customers. 

Then came the dreaded question: would I be willing to appear on camera to say all of this? Yes. Yes I would. I would absolutely adore to, in part because it is the scariest thing I could ever think to do and I haven't been so good at challenging myself of late.  But my workplace would no doubt see it differently, as they have done before. But luckily, I knew exactly who to ask to do it in my place though, and she's done me and the profession proud. 

in the programme, the undercover journalist actually received the best advice from Holland and Barrett. Let's just let that sink in for a bit, shall we? Holland and Barrett gave better advice that several registered pharmacies. Yes, it's a small sample, and the chap in this particular Holland and Barrett is likely an outlier, but if ever something should make our profession hang our heads in shame, it is that. 

There is a mistake in the programme too. They referred to the Faculty of Homeopathy as regulating homeopaths, but that's nonsense. Homeopaths don't have to be a member of the Faculty, and it seems that they do very little in the way of regulation anyway. Homeopaths can do what they please, with no one to slap their wrists when they harm people, unlike real healthcare professionals. 

The researchers contacted Nelson's, who said that they were disappointed that pharmacists weren't giving the right advice. They offered to provide more training, but I certainly do not think that's the sort of thing the profession needs. We need to be better able to distinguish between homeopathy and herbal medicines, and we need to make sure that we are honest with our patients. We need to know that "a lot of people buy it" is NOT the same thing as "it works", and we need to find better ways of connecting community pharmacists with good quality evidence. 

Thank you, Cathryn. You've done us proud. 

Hxxx

  

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you really get all medicines for children free in a pharmacy?

The following message has been widely shared on Facebook over the last few days.

It could have been an accidentally wonderful way of spreading the word about minor ailments services- something that pharmacies, CCGs, and PCTs have been struggling to do for years. Sadly, however, it hasn’t quite had that effect- it’s very inaccurate and is likely to lead to a lot of disappointment for patients and pharmacists alike. As with all things, if something sounds too good to be true, then in all likelihood it is.  Hopefully, this post might clear up some of the confusion caused by the original status.

The purpose of a minor ailments service (MAS)

Far from being a free way to stock your medicines cabinet, MAS’s are in place to reduce unnecessary GP appointments. They’re a convenient way to access medicines and advice for those who would otherwise see their GP in order to get free items on prescription as they can’t afford to buy medicines. As such, it’s not about the patient asking for specific medicines. Services are designed so that the pharmacist can sit down with the patient and give them advice about a minor condition. Yes, they can provide some medicines as part of that consultation, but only where the pharmacist deems them necessary in response to symptoms.  Many of the conditions covered are self-limiting, and will go away of their own accord without you having to use any medicine at all.

Local Schemes for Local People

Unless you’re in Scotland or Wales, MASs are commissioned according to local needs, by CCGs. Not all areas with have them, and of those that do, there may be wide differences in how they are run. For example, to access some schemes, you may have to be referred by your GP. Others, you might be able to just pop into your local pharmacy and ask for the service. Some areas may stipulate that only people from that town or county can use the service, whilst others allow it for out-of-townies. There are currently 70 individually commissioned MAS across England, some of which cover multiple areas. They might all have different names and different scopes. 

 

The logo of the Think Pharmacy First scheme,  available in some areas of North East England.

The logo of the Think Pharmacy First scheme,  available in some areas of North East England.

"All" medicines?

Nope. It’s not even available for all minor ailments. There will be a selected list of things that the pharmacist can deal with under the scheme, and again these will change depending on local needs. It might be things like headlice, hay fever, sprains and strains, conjunctivitis etc. The average number of indications covered by each service is 16. 

Even if an ailment is covered by the service, not all medicines will be available under the scheme. Only evidence-based, cost-effective medicines will be available. You won’t be able to get branded medicines (like the Calpol and Piriton bandied about in the original post) because this doesn’t represent a rational use of the service. I was lucky enough to be involved in the setting up of Think Pharmacy First, the minor ailments scheme that originally covered Newcastle and which now also covers quite a few other areas in the North East, and I remember the discussions we had about what we were going to include on the formulary. We checked robust sources for primary care management and made sure to remove anything that we considered irrational or which had no evidence to back it up. The post mentions plasters, but I very much doubt that these will be widely available- it’s a minor ailments scheme, not a first aid service.

Is it just Boots, or is it all pharmacies?

Even within an area with an MAS, not all pharmacies will offer the scheme. The original post seems to suggest that this is something only Boots offer, but in actual fact any pharmacy can participate. 34 MASs require the pharmacist themselves to provide the service. in 29, the pharmacist or an appropriately trained member of staff can undertake it. Some areas will require pharmacies, or individual pharmacists, to be accredited before they can start offering the scheme. So, if you do feel that you could benefit from using an MAS, its best to phone your local pharmacy first to check if they do deliver it.

Anyone can use the scheme, right?

MASs are there primarily to help those with a low income, who struggle to pay for medicines. Depending on the local scheme, others may be entitled to use it too, for example those over 60 or all children, but this is likely to vary. To use my local as an example again, the Think Pharmacy First scheme is available only to adults who are entitled to free prescriptions on the grounds of low income and their children along with all people aged 60 or over.

They very much ARE allowed to advertise it.

I’ve no idea where this nonsense about not advertising comes from. We had four foot, bright yellow and green window stickers made up for the launch of the Think Pharmacy First scheme, and I remember spending about an hour trying to remove air bubbles from it once I put it up. I did local press stints to advertise the scheme widely, with photoshoots and everything. The scheme was advertised in local council newsletters, in schools, and goodness only knows where else. For years, even after I left community pharmacy, I would get annual phone calls from people saying “Hey, I saw you in the paper the other day!” CCG websites and pharmacy websites have plenty of information about the schemes. They aren’t a dirty secret that we pharmacists keep to ourselves because we’re mean. If anything, they help us pharmacists demonstrate our worth, and we have long been campaigning for a good quality, robust national scheme to reduce all these inequalities.

There’s one obvious reason why these schemes probably aren’t that well known, and that’s budget. It’s nothing to do with not being able to advertise, it just comes down to cold hard cash. Some of these schemes are woefully underfunded, and as such they sadly get left to limp along.

It might take a while

We pharmacists tend to be very busy, and we usually have about 30 different things to do that all need doing immediately. An MAS consultation is a lot more in depth than a usual Over the Counter sale- it usually takes 10-15 minutes, in the consultation room, discussing the problem and any possible treatment. The paperwork then takes the pharmacist a good deal of extra time. Therefore, if you do use an MAS service, please do so patiently. If you need a medicine quicker and you aren’t willing to wait for a consultation, or you don’t want to answer any questions, it is probably best to buy a medicine over the counter instead.

Misuse

We’re all constantly bombarded with Daily Mail headlines about prescription fraud and the likes. Now, I don’t buy into any of that overblown rhetoric, but I, and probably any other community pharmacist you will speak to, can reel off many an occasion where people have taken the mickey out of a minor ailments service. Some people seem to go completely wild when they realise they can get something free. I’ve had numerous people ask me to hand them the formulary list so that they can mark all the products they’ve decided they want. Others used to demand to “self-prescribe” themselves whatever they fancied that day, which used to drive me mad and which used to lead to a stern talking to from myself. It’s just not in the spirit of the thing- its about accessing the pharmacist’s expertise and skill in treating minor ailments, rather than a shopping list. I fear the wording of the FB post in question may be leading people to think otherwise.

Overall

It’s a really handy, worthwhile scheme, and more people should definitely know about it and access it when need be. But they also need to know how variable it is and its limitations.

If you have any other questions about your local scheme, try having a lookie at your local CCG’s website. If in doubt, ring your local pharmacist and they should be able to tell you what’s available. 

 

 

reference: PSNC briefing 006/15: Analysis of Minor Ailments Services in England, Feb 2015


Is Herpatch Mouth Ulcer Gel worth a shot?

Mouth ulcers can be very unpleasant little blighters. They’re often really painful and can be rather distracting, especially when eating. And, if you ask me, anything that makes eating difficult makes life more miserable. They tend to be self-limiting, but for those most painful moments, there aren’t that many treatment options available over the counter. There’s a new product available in Boots currently called Herpatch mouth ulcer gel, so I thought I’d cast an eye over it to see whether it’s worth spending your hard earned cash on.

What's in a name? Mainly confusion in this case

Its actually been quite hard to find manufacturer’s information on this product due to some brand name issues. It would seem that the Herpatch range is being marketed elsewhere in Europe as two products for cold sores, a preventer and a treatment “serum”. The same manufacturers also market a product called Aphtgel, which is for mouth ulcers.

It seems that in the UK, however, the picture is less clear. From what I’ve managed to cobble together, only two products are being marketed, and they’re both doing so under the Herpatch brand. There is a mouth ulcer gel, which appears to be the same as Aphtgel, as well as the cold sore preventer product. The serum doesn’t appear to be available over here yet. The brand name makes little sense for the mouth ulcer product- there’s no patches, it has nothing to do with herpes, and it ends up sounding gender specific, which is nonsense.

What is it?

Aphtgel Remesense is based on Sylphar’s film forming technology. Upon application, it will form a transparent, thin muco-adhesive film on the mouth ulcer. This film will protect and isolate the injured mouth area affected by the ulcer.
— http://www.sylphar.com/sites/default/files/productfiles/111085Aphtgel_Psheet_UK00.pdf

This actually seems like a very reasonable mode of action. Forming a cover over the ulcer may in theory reduce pain, as well as reducing the likelihood that a secondary bacterial infection can creep in and make itself comfortable. It’s also useful to cover over an ulcer whilst it heals, but its obviously very difficult to stick a plaster in your gob, so a product like this certainly does have an important role, at least in theory. It’s not a new concept, but refreshingly it also doesn’t seem to be marketed as such. A product called Orabase used to do a similar sort of job, though its no longer available.

The main active ingredient is hyaluronic acid, which is naturally abundant in skin and cartilage, along with a few other bits and pieces like xanthan gum and cellulose. Basically, it contains a collection of gloopy, sticky stuff that probably won’t dissolve immediately when in contact with saliva. 

Medicine vs Medical Device?

As with many new Over the Counter products, Herpatch gel isn’t actually a medicine. Instead, it is classed as a medical device- a fact that is fairly difficult to deduce unless you do a fair bit of poking about on the manufacturer’s website. This means that the product doesn’t have to go through the rigorous testing that a medicine would, and it shouldn’t have any direct pharmacological effect- in this case it forms a physical barrier, but isn’t absorbed greatly and doesn’t produce any other effects on the body.

Does it work? 

Wonders will never cease, but it seems that there is actually some half-decent evidence that this product works. There are some actual, real life trials for gingivitis, periodontitis, and a similar product is already licensed for chemotherapy-induced mucositis. There’s not much evidence, admittedly, but the published stuff seems to suggest a decent effect size. It’s worth noting that most trials and evidence include people with recurrent or more severe ulcers, which might skew the results somewhat- most of the folk buying it over the counter will be using it for the occasional ulcer rather than for a more serious, recurrent problem.

Is it safe? 

Evidence seems to suggest that topical hyaluronic acid is well tolerated and there aren’t really any safety concerns that I can see think of with this product. One problem could be indirect harm caused by lengthy self-treatment of an ongoing problem. If an ulcer persists for more than 3 weeks, there’s a possibility that it could be something more suspicious.

The practicalities

Using the product might be a bit onerous. The aforementioned Orabase used to be a claggy, gritty paste which felt pretty unpleasant in your mouth. Being a gel, I’d imagine that Herpatch might feel a bit better, but there’s still a possibility that it might feel weird. You’re supposed to wait for 30 minutes before eating and drinking and avoid rubbing the area with your tongue. That seems… unlikely. We’ve all got that little masochistic streak in us that means you can’t quite leave it alone. I’m therefore not sure how long the barrier will stay in place for.

The cost.

This product isn’t cheap, coming in at £7 a pack. That seems pretty steep to me, especially for something that is self-limiting and will probably resolve in two or three days.

To summarise

Not a medicine as such, but a product that has some prior plausibility and some evidence suggesting it may work. Pretty pricey, but I guess if you’re going out for an important curry or something, you might decide it’s worthwhile. There aren’t that many other options available that aren’t hokum or placebos, so I’d actually-for once- be fairly happy to recommend this product to some patients over the counter.

 

Electioneering

I'm after a soundtrack to this election day to get me in the mood, and its proving rather difficult. I think I may require your help- If you have any to add do let me know @SparkleWildfire. Oh, and no D:Ream please :)

Here's what I've scraped together so far:

Radiohead- Electioneering

Arcadia- Election Day. Worth it just for all that hair. 

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly - Daylight Robbery

Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains- Election Song

And finally, one with a little bit of naughty language: 

Isn't homeopathy the same as herbal medicines?

A lot of the posts on this blog are looking at homeopathy and its harms.  I've been working on the basis that most people that read this blog have a knowledge of what it is and how it differs from, say, herbal medicines. However, on speaking to a lot of people, it would seem that it is worth reiterating what it actually is, as this really helps to put into context the sort of harms that might be caused by it. 

The ingredients of a homeopathic medicine are beyond a 12 C or 24 X dilution are as follows:

  • Sugar

  • Water

That's it. That's all it is. Homeopathic medicines are so highly diluted that by the time the pills are made, there is essentially no probability of it having any molecules of the "active" ingredient in it at all.

So, although homeopathic medicines are made from all sorts of things- plant materials, heavy metals, conventional medicines, dolphin sonar,  body part, tumours, ducks, exhaust fumes, the light reflected from Saturn etc, none of these ingredients are actually present in the final formulation- the pill or tincture that you take. It probably hasn't even been within a mile of the remedy listed on the pack.

If you didn't know this already, you're now probably thinking 'Eh? What are they playing at? How on earth is that supposed to work?!" Well this website is probably the best one to tell you that: How Does Homeopathy Work?

Herbal medicines are different. They are made from plants or plant extracts, and they haven't been subjected to the dilution process- in other words, there are high enough levels of pharmacologically active component  in them to mean that they could-at least theoretically- work

Lake Superior as a homeopathic solution

A good way to illustrate what I mean about homeopathy is to use Lake Superior as an example.

At its longest, Lake Superior is 360 miles, and it is 160 miles at its widest point. Let's say we filled Lake Superior with a 30C Nat Mur (salt) solution.

  • Lake Superior holds 12,000 square km of water.
  • In this volume of a 30C solution, there would be 40080 molecules of sodium chloride (salt).
  • 40080 molecules = 0.000,000,000,000,000,003,89 grams of salt.
  • 1 grain of salt weighs approx 0.064799 grams

If Lake Superior were a 30C Nat Mur solution, it would a teeny, tiny fraction of one grain of salt. That's how dilute a homeopathic solution is. It makes no sense whatsoever for it to possibly work, and indeed all good quality evidence suggests that it doesn't. 

An award nomination and a shiny new look blog, oh my!

Hello and welcome to this new shiny home for my ramblings. It's much prettier, right? 

I really wanted something that looks a bit less like it has been cobbled together by an idiot in a few hours, even if that is, ultimately, what it is. Because I listen to a lot of podcasts, and pretty much every one in existence is sponsored by Squarespace, I started to feel like they were sponsoring my brain. It seemed natural (or simply the inevitable effect of subliminal marketing) to give them a try, and it turns out that I really like it as a platform.  It meant I even finally got round to sorting out a proper domain name and everything. Hurrah!

I'm still getting to grips with it so far, so its likely that there will be a few bits and pieces that don't work or problems that need ironing out. Do bear with me, and do let me know if you come across anything that isn't working yet. If you nip over to the About This Blog bit in the menu in the top corner, you can find a contact form or more details about how to give me a shout.

In other news, I was really pleasantly surprised to find out a while ago that I had been shortlisted for a Ockham award. Although I didn't win, I've found it a real honour to be recognised in this way, amongst really important skeptical activism campaigns like Stop The Saatchi Bill. The shortlist is determined by nominations, so its really wonderful to know that many of you thought my little blog worthy. I'm truly lucky that so many people like what I do. The evening of the awards ceremony was good fun too- it was held at the QED conference, and it just felt great to hear the title of my blog read out, the rowdy whooping it got in response, and to see excerpts of it being shown on the big screens. 

So I just wanted to say a big ole' thank you to all of my readers. I know I'm not the most consistent of posters, thanks to the mundane realities of daily life, but hopefully having a lovely new slick website might spur me on to post more regularly. Remember to change your bookmarks and all of that other stuff.

Hxxx

Vicks, Feet, and a whole load of nonsense.

Vicks Vaporub. It's a staple of our medicine cabinet, and we all reach for it at the first sign of sniffles. You may have seen (usually on a poorly made image posted on Facebook) or heard (from a friend who heard from their friend who heard from their aunt's sister's niece's dogsitter) that actually we've all be using it all wrong. 

It's logical to use Vaporub on your chest, pillow, in a steam inhalation. It makes sense, because the vapours will end up in or around your nostrils, which is where it acts. But no- according to this particular internet fraud, it is only by smearing our tootsies with it that we will get the full benefit. 

I'm going to pick apart the standard Facebook post, piece by piece, so you can see my thought processes and logical reasons why I don't believe a word. Even if you do think this works, stick with me and see whether or not you agree with any of my individual points, or if you can come up with a more robust argument for using it on your feet. 

"Some of us have used Vicks Vaporub for years for everything from chapped lips to sore toes and many body parts in between."

 Wait, What? Who uses Vicks Vaporub for chapped lips? I've never heard of anyone do this, ever. Firstly, it would sting lots, and secondly it could be highly toxic, given its essential oil content, and aspiration risk when swallowed due to petroleum. I wouldn't put the stuff anywhere near my mouth.

But I’ve never heard of this. And don’t laugh, it works 100% of the time

100% of the time? Nothing in medicine works 100% of the time, so alarm bells are ringing loudly, unless this is the single most important medical discovery that's ever happened. If a medicine had been truly found to be 100% effective for anything, it would have been ground-breaking, world-changing news- probably not something that's just shared by your cousin on FB. 

 In the interests of research, I actually tried this when I had a troublesome post-infective cough. Needless to say, it did nothing to the frequency of my cough, so we've already disproved that number straight away. Whether or not it works, it most certainly does not work 100% of the time, and if that number isn't true, then why on earth should we believe anything else in this post?

...although the scientists who discovered it aren’t sure why.

 What scientists? What were their names? Where were they working? Where did they receive their funding from? Why aren't their details given? If they aren't sure, do they have any working theories? 

The lack of detail here is really telling. It really suggests that this is a whole load of hokum, especially given that a search (see below) shows no formal records of any "scientists" or research.

To stop night time coughing in a child (or adult as we found out personally), put Vicks Vaporub generously on the bottom of the feet at bedtime, then cover with socks.

Ahh, feet. Feet really are a favourite for peddlers of quackery. I'm not sure why, but from reflexology to detox foot patches, the alt med world seems to be obsessed with them. Any time feet are suggested as therapy for anything going on elsewhere in the body, loud alarm bells start going off. 

The ironic thing is that feet are probably the worst place to apply any medicine. The skin on your feet is miles thicker that elsewhere. Absorption through the skin tends to be low and erratic at the best of times, but if you apply something onto your feet, the chances of absorbing anything useful from it are very low indeed. 

Additionally, your feet, when lying down, are very far away from your airways. The post requests that you put socks on over it. Therefore there is certainly no way that vapour could get to your airways in any clinically relevant amounts.

Even persistent, heavy, deep coughing will stop in about 5 minutes and stay stopped for many, many hours of relief. 

Coughing fits are just that- fits. They're acute- you cough a lot for a little while, then stop, then it all starts again. A more chronic cough will still follow this pattern or stopping and starting. So yes, persistent, heavy deep coughing will usually stop- albeit temporarily- in probably much less than 5 minutes. If you're coughing for longer than that, it's likely you're going to be having severe problems breathing, and you'll need urgent medical care- you wouldn't really be thinking about smearing goo on your feet. You may find that you put Vicks on your feet and your coughing stops shortly after, but the likelihood is that the coughing would have stopped even if you hadn't. This is called regression to the mean, and its one reason why we can't rely on anecdotes for deciding whether a medicine works. We need to scale up and look at robust clinical trials instead.

Works 100% of the time and is more effective in children than even very strong prescription cough medicines. 

That 100% claim raises its improbable head again. To claim that something is more effective than other medicines would suggest the existence of comparative trials, which-spoiler alert- don't actually exist. This is rather a strawman anyway, as there are very few prescription cough medicines on the whole. Even conventional cough medicines don't really work to any great degree, and are based on very shakey evidence. It would be a very, very rare occasion indeed that a doctor would prescribe a cough medicine on prescription for a child. 

 In addition it is extremely soothing and comforting and they will sleep soundly.

I can see how that tingly, cold sort of feeling you get from menthol could be pleasant, though I don't think I'd go as far as to call it soothing. To be honest, you'd have to have perfectly soft skin on your feet to feel anything at all- when I tried it I didn't even feel a tiny tingle, especially since it was covered over with socks. 

Just happened to tune in A.M. Radio and picked up this guy talking about why cough medicines in kids often do more harm than good, due to the chemical makeup of these strong drugs so, I listened.

What guy, and on which radio station? What qualifications does this guy have for making medical recommendations?  Who is even meant to be narrating this post? The only medicines now available for coughs in children in the UK are glycerol and simple linctus paediatric. Both of these essentially work on the basis of being sugary, slightly gloopy water. There's no "strong drugs" here, just some soothing "demulcents" that taste nice and are supposed to leave a soothing lining on the throat, making a cough feel less raw. They're mainly placebos. 

It was a surprise finding and found to be more effective than prescribed medicines for children at bedtime, in addition to have a soothing and calming effect on sick children who then went on to sleep soundly.

 Where is this finding published? What sort of a study was it and how was it designed? How many participants were there? Was there a control group, or a comparator group and if so, what was the comparator? As it happens, all of this is irrelevant really, as no studies exist. These statements come from the head of an internet fraudster, rather than actually being grounded in reality. 

My wife tried it on herself when she had a very deep constant and persistent cough a few weeks ago and it worked 100%! She said that it felt like a warm blanket had enveloped her, coughing stopped in a few minutes and believe me, this was a deep, (incredibly annoying!) every few seconds uncontrollable cough, and she slept cough-free for hours every night that she used it.

 We don't even know who is narrating this thing in the first place, let alone their wife. As I've explained above, this is an anecdote, and we can't derive anything from it. A person, who may or may not be mythical, had a cough, and it went away after they did a thing. It might have gone away anyway, we just can't tell. 

A warm blanket?  far from it. It actually just feels like you have some oily gunk on your feet. At best it might feel a little cold, but for most of us, it'll feel no different at all thanks to our thick skin. 

If you have grandchildren, pass this on. If you end up sick, try it yourself and you will be absolutely amazed at how it works!

Well that's just bizarre. Presumably you don't need to bother if you're simply a parent, only if you're a grandparent? What a load of nonsense. I wasn't left amazed, I was just left feeling a little silly. And I had minty-smelling feet.

So of course I have done a search for the evidence and claims included in the post and have found a grand total of Nothing At All. I will say this though: If I was the manufacturer of Vicks, and someone had done some studies which found my product to be 100% effective, I would sing it loudly from every rooftop I could find. I would be the manufacturer of The Number One Most Effective Medical Product In The World Ever, and I would make sure that I made my millions on the back of that fact, as well as collecting my Nobel prize for Medicine and probably world peace as well. What I probably wouldn't do is ignore the claims, and continue on selling my product and advising that its used in a way which has a less than 100% chance of it working. 

Direct harms from following this advice could include dermatitis and skin reactions. Indirect harms? Well, you've slathered some slippery, oily unguent onto the bottom of your feet. When you take your socks off, you may be slip-sliding all over the place.

The moral of the story is: Very rarely should you believe anything posted on Facebook. Unless its me, posting a link to my blog, of course ;)

Hxxx
 

The beauty of disagreement

If this skepticism lark has taught me anything, its that disagreeing is a beautiful thing. Disagreeing with someone is a hard thing to do, in any context. Yet as humans, health care professionals, and as skeptics, its one of our keenest tools. Its only by being able to step into disagreement that we can understand our topic, our audience, and hopefully steer hearts and minds away from those willing to mislead.

I recently attended a panel about daring to disagree, which mainly focused on religious debates over Twitter and the like. I'm guilty of wiling away hours of my life arguing with homeopaths over twitter, and I'm often asked why, as I'm never going to change their minds. The short, and most noble answer is that someone undecided might spectate, and I might be able to make some impact into how they think about the subject. The more self-serving version is that its good practice to hone my skills in identifying fallacies and flaws, finding workarounds and ways of wording things, and to understand an argument in advance of the next time. In these types of arguments, the people who you are speaking to are removed from yourself, perhaps not anonymous as such but they tend to be used to arguing. Their position is usually on the defensive in the first place because their chosen subject has usually been the butt of skeptical inquiry for years.

But what of those closer to home? Sticking out heads up above the parapet in other situations is one of the hardest things in life to do. Most of us instinctively see disagreement as a threat and a personal attack, and we react accordingly. Even now, despite all I've learnt about constructing arguments and debates, with all of this practice, I certainly still get physical reactions when someone disagrees with me. My heart will pound, my mouth with become dry, and I'll want to curl up in fear because my body and brain immediately leap to the conclusion that no one likes me, that I'm so insignificant that I must automatically be wrong. I'm thankful to skepticism in that I'm able to take a deep breath and overcome those initial few moments, then can try to reassess my position. Am I actually right, but there are some good points to take away from the other stance? Or actually, is my reasoning flawed? In which case, why? Where could I have found more information, what is the other person bringing to it? Whichever way it goes, I, and the other person, end up learning more. Ultimately, we're not here to be right or wrong- we're hear to learn more, and that's the important bit.

Problems arise though because often our instincts take hold. I can't describe the number of times its all gone tits up. I can spend ages agonising over whether or not to disagree. Once I've decided to do so, I write and rewrite my argument so that it is as objective as possible, structured clearly, evidence based etc., only to have the response be “Eurgh why are you being so mean?! I thought we were friends!” or similar. I've tried all sorts of ways to word things, and I haven't quite come up with an answer on how best to avoid this response. Its not just Facebook etc. where this is a problem- we all hear in the news about irrevocable breakdowns in the doctor-patient relationship (Ashya King, as an example). We've all encountered the patient at the pharmacy counter who believes a random person waiting in the queue over our own expert advice. No one learns anything from these sort of exchanges, and that's a real missed opportunity.

So the question is, how do we go about promoting disagreement as a positive thing that we all need in our lives? How do we turn the tables on the thousands of years of evolution that make us shut down arguments as soon as they begin? Well I think the answer has to initially come from example. I believe the skeptical movement is extremely well placed to start this tidal change in thought, but we all have to practise the heck out of it every single day if we're ever going to get anywhere. We have to start being known synonymously as folk who are really, really good at disagreeing respectfully, and that has to start from within. Its clear that the skeptical community in the UK and beyond occasionally falls short in this regard, and that's a real shame as it appears to be driving good people away.

We need to recognise that we might agree with someone on one thing, but not the other. We can't see a person as synonymous with one of their opinions, and put people in good or bad boxes based on that. We shouldn't be labelling people as anti-this, or anti-that, and then refusing to engage further. We should be experts at digging deeper than that, looking behind the headlines to search for shared humanity underneath. We need to lead the way in disagreeing without bullying, and we should never, ever let up on that. We put ourselves in a position that could so easily be mashed up together with bullying by the general population when we dare to disagree, and we need to be relentlessly exemplary in our behaviour to prove that we aren't. We need to be the type of people who, even if faced with a mutant hybrid of Nigel Farage and Piers Morgan, would manage to keep their cool and be polite.

But then again, feel free to disagree ;)

Hxxx

 

Allergy relievers: red light nonsense

Its just about coming into allergy season again, so today I am turning my attention to a product I’ve seen for sale in a few pharmacies I’ve locumed at of late: The Allergy Reliever Device. These things are sold under some pharmacy chain’s own names, or under brand names like Kinetik.

An allergy reliever display spotted on a Tesco pharmacy counter by @TheWholeT00th. 

An allergy reliever display spotted on a Tesco pharmacy counter by @TheWholeT00th. 

It’s yet another medical device. These things seem to be hitting the pharmacy shelves more and more often these days, giving them a level of respectability which personally I don’t think they deserve. At least this device makes it clear that it is a device though, unlike things like Prevalin which pretend to be real medicine.

According to Kinetik, it uses “red light therapy to suppress the cells that release histamine, thereby relieving the symptoms of hayfever and allergic rhinitis.”

So, essentially shoving some Christmas tree lights up your nose then. Well I must admit that’s a new one on me. It’s pretty hard to sniff out (geddit?) the theory behind this one too.  The manufacturers of these things don’t give any explanation as to why red light would suppress mast cells, and several Google searches later I’m none the wiser. I have managed to dig out one published paper in rats, where the authors seem to be suggesting that red light changes the redox state of cells, which might cause some changes within the cell. Even these others say that they’re not quite sure what’s happening though, and that further investigation is required.

Armed with a few unsuccessful Google Searches, I delved into the medical literature. I tried every which way I could think of to search for evidence that this thing works, but ended up drawing a total blank. I think this may well be the least successful search for evidence I’ve done so far, and that’s saying something. Even the manufacturers can’t be bothered with listing any sources instead they go wild with the clipart, giving us a Generic Smiley White Coated Person and Happy Photostock Chef alongside some very random recipes and general lifestyle advice.

And it looks like this thing really isn't very pleasant or practical to use. You're supposed to shove the probes up your schnozz as far as you comfortably can, then keep them there for three minutes. Not the most dignified of poses. And you're supposed to do this three or four times a day. That's a lot of inconvenience. Seems like prime Use Once Then Put In A Dark Cupboard territory for me, especially since taking a one a day antihistamine tablet is no hassle at all. 

In short, I wouldn’t waste your money. There’s no basis to these things, and it saddens me that they are not only being sold in pharmacies, but are being sold under pharmacy brand names. The more we associated our profession with such nonsense, the less trustworthy we become to other healthcare professionals and patients alike.

Hxxx

"I do my own research"

Something that I see a lot in on-line debates about alternative medicine is phrases like “I did my own research” or “people should be allowed to do their own research and make their own decisions”

However, I don’t think that the vast majority of people are able to do their own research. Now, that’s probably a pretty unpopular opinion. It’s patronising, paternalistic, and it flies in the face of patient choice. Who am I to question the intelligence and abilities of other people? Why do I think I'm so clever compared to anyone else out there? Allow me to explain myself.

I've been a pharmacist for a very long time now. From uni, through pre-reg, to my own revision at work, I've been taught critical appraisal skills. Yet to this day, it’s something that I actually find really hard work. It’s a skill that requires continual honing, and every time I use it I feel like I am fighting with my brain. 

Even in the last two weeks, I've been revisiting my critical appraisal skills to make sure they are up to date. I've done some in-house work, three on-line courses, and a one to one training session. Yet I still find myself sat here at my desk for several hours, if not days, looking over the same study with a furrowed brow, desperately trying to make the numbers and statistics tell me their story.  If I find it so hard, then how on earth is someone without any medical background or critical appraisal training supposed to do any of it? 

There’s hazard ratios, odds ratios, confidence intervals, numbers needed to treat, event rates, absolute risks and other confuddling terms to deal with. I naturally struggle with numbers at the best of times; like most people, I much prefer narratives. That means that I have to constantly argue with myself to keep looking at the results page, rather than just flicking to the discussion. Because if I did that, I'd be relying on what the authors, with all of their possible biases and agendas, say their numbers say. Then, when I eventually manage to squeeze the swimming mass of figures into some sort of order in my head, I find out that these numbers aren't the full story, and I need to dig even deeper into other analyses of the same figures to find out what’s really going on.* 

A quick and very simplistic visualisation of all the layers of interpretation that might lead to information found on your common or garden health information website. That's a whole lot of bias.

A quick and very simplistic visualisation of all the layers of interpretation that might lead to information found on your common or garden health information website. That's a whole lot of bias.

It’s not a pleasant task by any stretch of the imagination. It really does feel like a mental marathon. I often question whether I am even up to the task- I can end up feeling stupid, and confused. But in order to really figure out whether or not a drug works I need to strip away all the levels of other peoples’ interpretation and start from scratch, with the cold, hard, impersonal numbers. That way I can build my own narrative, uninfluenced by what the study’s authors or sponsors want me to think, by what newspapers want me to believe, by what campaigners want me to know. The only way to know the truth is to start right at the bottom, in a dark dank pit of statistics, then to slowly start building yourself a ladder until you emerge, blinking, into the pleasant knowledge that you've worked out what on earth is going on.

This sort of raw data is not only extremely hard to deal with once it’s in front of you, but its also pretty difficult to come by. Finding it in the first place includes searching multiple medical databases- and these things aren't just a quick free text search like you would do on Google. Constructing a search can in itself take an hour or so, and then you have to trawl through the results to decide which are relevant to what you are specifically looking for. For me, most of the time, a question is structured like this:

What is the evidence that [drug/ group of drugs] works for [disease] in [patient group

 So, in my poorly drawn Venn diagram below, I need to find those holy grail papers that reside in the pink area:

I am truly terrible at MS paint, but you get the idea.

I am truly terrible at MS paint, but you get the idea.

What a typical EMBASE search looks like. This is for a new drug with few synonyms so its a fairly straightforward one. Others can have forty odd lines of searches.

What a typical EMBASE search looks like. This is for a new drug with few synonyms so its a fairly straightforward one. Others can have forty odd lines of searches.

Some of these papers might be pay-walled, so it’ll take me a week or so to get my hands on them. Some of them might initially look promising, but once you start to dig down into the figures you see that there might actually be problems with how they were undertaken or reported, or they might turn out to not quite fit in some way- perhaps the dose they used in the trial is different to the licensed dose in the UK, or the people enrolled into the trial don’t quite fit the population you want to know about, or perhaps the trial just didn't recruit enough people so any results from it are invalidated.

I've been doing this job for years, and I really do still struggle with all of this stuff. That’s not because I'm poor at my job, or because I'm stupid, or because I haven’t put the effort in to understand it. It’s because, when it comes down to it, this stuff is really bloody hard. It’s time-consuming, boring, and unintuitive.

People might well feel like they've done their own research. They might spend several hours digging about on the internet and feel empowered by any decisions that they make. But what they don’t realise is that what they've been researching isn't just the information- it’s the information with many, many layers of interpretation (and therefore bias) added. For a choice to be truly informed, you need to go right back to the start, to those terrifying tables of numbers and statistics. That’s simply not realistic for the majority of people.

Far better, then, to learn how to decide on whose interpretation you’re going to rely on. Will it be those that take the media reports at face value, or who have an agenda or a product to sell you? Or will you go with those that have years of training in how to pull apart complicated data and disseminate it in understandable ways?

Hxxx

*I thought I’d give you a quick real life example here, but I thought it best to asterisk it because I've probably bored you enough already. I'm currently looking at a drug called edoxaban and its use in reducing the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation. It’s the newest in a series of novel oral anticoagulant drug- they’re supposedly like warfarin, but less faffy. So I find and look at the main trial, and spend days unpicking the stats. It looks like both strengths used in the trial are no worse than warfarin, and the higher dose might even be a little better. Great, right?

Well, that’s not quite the end of the story. Because it turns out- and this isn't reported in the trial at all, but instead is contained in the FDA’s briefing document- that in people with fully working kidneys, edoxaban is actually worse than plain old warfarin. In people whose kidney’s aren't quite at full capacity though, it might work better than warfarin. So the overall trial results are kind of skewed, and if we didn't dig deeper, we might have been giving a whole group of people a more expensive drug with worse outcomes than warfarin. Even the FDA findings are borderline- some of what they describe doesn't reach statistical significance.

Why I'm not currently a member of the RPS

Since there's a whole load of people tweeting their reasons for why they've renewed their membership, it seems like a really good time to discuss my reasons for not renewing.

Historically, membership of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain was mandatory, as they acted as both a professional body and a regulator. Their fees were huge- £400+, and they had a reputation for being very meek and for being a bit of an Old Boys Club. Then the split occurred, and now we pharmacists have to pay the regulator, the General Pharmaceutical Council, but we can choose whether or not we want to fork out for RPS membership. When I was working towards being a pharmacist, I was so excited and proud to be part of a professional body. I'd love to still feel that way today, but there are a few things standing in my way. Some of these reasons are very personal to me, whilst others I think may resonate with many. I can but hope that if they are read by anyone at the RPS, my comments are taken as they are meant- constructively, and with a hopeful heart that one day I will be convinced enough to renew my membership with them after a long hiatus.

Cold, Hard Cash

Membership of the Society costs £192. That's a lot of money. Surprisingly, that's not a popular opinion- whenever I say so on Twitter I am hounded by comments like "It's only the price of a pint of beer per week" or "just give up your morning coffee!". The inference is that my priorities are all wrong, and I must be mad to not join for such a reasonable price.

A few years ago, I really was in financial trouble. It was a combination of things, including a divorce, that got me to that point. Some of those things were my fault, some weren't, but none of that mattered when I had ran out of my overdraft and an enormous bill was overdue. I'm now at a much more stable point in life, but that time is still fresh enough in my memory that £192 is still a lot of money for something non-essential. 

Attitude towards poverty and Other Snark

There have been a few occasions when I have mentioned that I can't justify the cost on Twitter, and as mentioned above the response has been rather eye opening, sometimes from RPS staff. It would appear that there is a complete lack of understanding of financial difficulties from some quarters. You try to explain that yes, it might just be the price of a pint per week, but if you haven't got the price of a pint in the first place it makes no difference, but that concept just does not appear to compute. Some of these conversations got so bad that I had people DMing me to check that I was okay.

I've been made to feel ashamed and belittled. This may not have been intended, but this general conception that pharmacists- presumably because they get paid fairly well- must never have real money worries is really concerning to me. A good wage is brilliant, but it doesnt 100% guarantee such financial security that £192 seems like a throwaway amount. Sometimes life just steps in and mucks everything up. As health care professionals, empathy is an extremely important skill, and there have been a few occasions were that seems to have been lacking. If folk can be so dismissive of financial hardships, what else could they be similarly judgemental about?

Additionally, I did see another, unrelated snarky tweet by a very prominent member of RPS staff to a tweeter who had dared to ask for evidence. This may be a very minor thing, but to me its a big no-no, since I'm so passionate about evidence based medicine. 

I wish I had screenshots of all of these conversations, but they happened a long time ago and I'm too tired to try to hunt them out. I know this might all sound super petty, but for an organisation with professionalism at its very heart, I think such seemingly small things add up.

 Evidence of Value for Money.

The RPS certainly does some very good work. And I can honestly say that I hugely admire their improvement over the years that I've been a pharmacist. They're a lot more visible these days, a lot more proactive. I've admired their stance on things like social media, homeopathy, and e-cigarettes. I love that they've collaborated with Sense About Science. But, despite all of these advances, I'm still not entirely convinced that membership would make enough difference to my daily life to justify a cost of £192. How do I know, if I'm not a member? well, I know this isn't particularly robust, but from my own n=1 experience of previously being a member compared to now, I see no difference.

I've never had a patient look at my credentials and say "Here, you're missing an R and an S from your MPharm, you must be a rubbish pharmacist.

Money=Professionalism

This is a concept which I simply cannot abide, but which is creeping more and more into the forefront. It seems that organisations are starting to equate RPS membership with professionalism, and this is very simply not the case. Throwing money about does not, under any costs, make someone more professional. I know some really terrible, unethical pharmacists who are members. Homeopathic pharmacists who repeatedly endanger peoples' lives, in spite of the RPS stance on homeopathy, appear to be members. Then there's me, who works bloody hard to be a good pharmacist, to promote safe and effective healthcare, and who spends sleepless nights worrying about my patients.

What of those of us who work our asses off, day by day, to help our customers, pay our bills and maybe, if we're lucky go on a little holiday? The implication that people who cannot afford membership are somehow less professional really, really drives me mad, and far from making me rush to hand over my cash, it instead distances me further.

Previous personal letdowns

I've written previously about a complaint against me when I was newly qualified, which was handled by the  RPSGB. Although they no longer deal with complaints, I was left with a lasting sour taste in my mouth following that experience. I spent a lot of time with the inspector, talking about the substandard working conditions I was being forced to work in at the time. I was assured that the RPS would fight to improve those standards, and that they would be taken into account. Of course there was no mention of that conversation in the report i later received.

I know this is anecdotal, and I know its unfair to tar the current RPS with the same brush as I did their predecessors. But it does mean that to me personally, they need to work a little harder than usual to win back my trust.

My Joining Threshold

I'm not entirely sure of what would convince me to join as of yet. This is still, despite all of these years, pretty nebulous and shifts occasionally. Some of my admittedly vague suggestions where there is room for improvement are:

  • Guiding a sea-change in the profession to embrace evidence-based medicine. 

  • Speaking up about the amount of unprofessional quackery for sale over pharmacy counters. 

  • Truly standing up for everyman: acknowledging the importance of every pharmacist out there with aching feet and a headache who hasn't had a proper lunch break in years. 

  • Shaking off the traditional top-down culture of the profession and finding creative new ways to really listen to those of us working at the front line- those of us who can't get the time off work to attend meetings in London and who are too exhausted at the end of our 16 hour shifts to spend hours reading consultations .

  • Making some really meaningful steps towards changing poor workplace conditions for pharmacists.

  • Constructively engaging with non-members in order to raise the profile of the profession cohesively, rather than creating a false, unhelpful two tier system

  • Working towards breaking through mental health stigmatism both for patients and within the profession. 

The other important factor for myself is of course financial stability. I'm getting there. I'm not ashamed to say that at the moment, though, I'd rather prioritise that pint per week over membership. My social life is extremely important to me- its what has gotten me through the hard times, and I can see a clear benefit to my life from it. At the moment, sadly, I can't quite say the same about RPS membership, though hopefully in time I will be persuaded otherwise.

Hxxx

Special Investigation: Is Santa really a pharmacist?

Despite him being one of the most famous people on the planet, we know a suspiciously small amount about Santa Claus's background. I've had the suspicion for some time that he may in fact be a pharmacist throughout the rest of the year. 

A quick check of the GPhC register brings up no S. Claus’s, though of course that only rules out pharmacy practice in theUK. Unfortunately it would seem thatLapland does not have a similarly searchable pharmacist register, so we are unable to confirm his registration status in his home country. However, if Santa were to be working overseas, it would seem that Your Family Pharmacy, 15 N Kringle Place, Santa Claus, Indiana would be his first choice, especially given its prime location near to Lake RudolphCamping Park. (honestly, this place exists)

Santa is, of course, most famous for operating a highly efficient free delivery service. No doubt these skills have been honed throughout the rest of the year, as he organises a prescription collection and free delivery service to his patients.

As the song goes: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice”, demonstrating that Santa is following robust self-checking procedures. It is clear that he has the sort of attention to detail that is required by pharmacists. It’s also clear from this song that he is aware of NICE guidelines.

It seems clear that Santa’s system of working, is synonymous of that in a community pharmacy. He works alongside a team of highly skilled and well trained elves, though retaining legal responsibility for all that goes on in his workshop. One assumes that, on visiting the workshop, his Responsible Father Christmas sign is clearly displayed.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence is that of his links with the Coca Cola company. Santa has a long history of advertising the product, adding a splash of red and a liberal helping of fur to his usual pharmacy white coat. Its good to see that Santa is so devoted to advertising the invention of  fellow pharmacist John Pemberton, who originally invented the drink as a cure for his own morphine addiction. Santa is clearly interested in harm reduction and no doubt works closely with local drug and alcohol teams during the rest of the year to dispense opioid replacement therapies for patients.

Santa Claus, however, does have some flaws as a pharmacist. As discussed in the BMJ, he appears to pose a number of public health risks, including as a vector for infectious diseases, and in the promotion of drink-driving. It would seem that he would benefit from a visit to his nearest Healthy Living Pharmacy, where he can access advice on reducing his weight and brandy intake. It is good to note that he successfully quite smoking and seems to have remained abstinent.

Hxxx

The difference a year makes

“Maybe this Christmas will mean something more
Maybe this year love will appear
Deeper than ever before”
— -Tracey Thorn, Maybe This Christmas

This time last year, I was writing this post, collecting together songs that I felt best summarised why I find Christmas such an emotional time.

Of course, I’ve been listening to that playlist on repeat for weeks this year too, but it sounds different to me this time round. Its transformed from a quietly melancholic collection to one of optimism.

This time last year, I was steadfastly single. I refused to believe in love in the same way I used to do in the past. I had never even said the word to anyone else (except for friends) for years. I was stubbornly resisting the advances of a man who I knew to be very wonderful, on the basis that I would likely just mess it all up anyway and hurt him, given that I was, in my own head, such an awful and cynical heartless monster who would clearly ruin his life.

Luckily, my willpower (helped along by a fair amount of beer) failed me eventually and we went on a date in January. This is probably the best decision I have made, ever. What has followed has been better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve gone from refusing to acknowledge the L-word to telling him many, many times a day that I love him. He puts up with me and my mood swings, is happy to leave me alone when I need social recharge time, and is just really quite marvellous. He makes me laugh despite his cracker joke-level sense of humour, gives great hugs, and most importantly buys me Lego. For the first time in blummin’ yonks, I feel safe, and like I’ve come home.

“So happy new year, this is the one we talked about and
Happy New Year, this is where it all works out
This is where is comes together and everything comes through
Happy ever after all comes true”
— -Simma, Happy New Year

So going into this new year, everything seems different. We’re moving into a new house together, and I really can’t wait. The cat and the hamster have double-barrelled surnames. I have a new job lined up, though it’s in the same centre and will involve moving a mere several metres across the office to a different desk. I still worry that it’ll all come crashing down at some point, but I’m managing to keep those thoughts in check and just enjoy it all for the most part.

Hopefully I’m not sounding too smug here. I just want you all to know about the good things that happen, since I tell you probably far too much about the bad stuff. I’ve had some amazing e-mails in the past from readers who have been through similar experiences to me, and I’d like you to know that things can change and can end up even being miles better than they ever were before.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I know this time of year can be really hard for some. I send my love and hugs to you. 

Hxxx

The Prometheus Pants Problem

Prometheus. It’s the film that disappointed pretty much everyone. The internet is flooded with in depth critiques of it, many of which refer to the lack of real science, along with the deep metaphysical and philosophical issues with it. All of these posts, however, have missed what I found to be the most problematic feature of the film: Underwear.

And yes, I know it came out two years ago, and it’s a bit weird to be writing a blog post about it now, but I’ve found myself trying to explain the Prometheus Pants Problem (PPP) to a few people, both verbally and on Twitter of late. Its complexity and importance means that 140 characters will just not do, and I think it is important to have a robust reference source to refer people to when explaining all aspects of the PPP.

It is important to note, I think, that in actual fact I vaguely enjoyed Prometheus. When I saw it at the cinema, I hadn’t seen any of the Alien films (I know, I know), but I thought it was worth a shot anyway. I found the running about with lots of alien goo stuff flying about fairly entertaining. The problems came when they kept interrupting the frivolous alien romp bits with Important Thinly Veiled Stuff About God, which made me rather lose patience. And, of course, I ended up pretty fixated on the PPP, which meant that I couldn’t think about anything else in the film. I’m like that- I’ll fixate myself on one tiny thing that happens for a millisecond, and then spend the entire rest of the film thinking and internally ranting about it.

The Need for Pants At All.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. You get in from a hard day’s work. You’re not expecting anyone. You’ve got a whole night of delicious nothingness stretching ahead of you. Its toasty warm in your home. What’s the first thing you do? You take off your uncomfortable outer wear, and let it all hang out, right? I mean, no one is going to see you and you’re in the comfort of your own home, so why the hell not wander around in all of your naked birthday suited glory if you want to?

Perhaps you wear your PJs instead, or a pair of comfy pants. That’s probably because, deep down, you’re sort of somehow worried that someone might see. You might get an unexpected visitor, or the pizza man might be arriving at any point. But imagine for a second that you are the only person alive at that point in time. What’s the point in clothes then? Especially if you can absolutely, categorically be sure that you’re the only one, because you’re the person who creates lifein the first place, and you haven’t yet drank the wormy goo that you need in order to do so yet.

So, in the opening seconds of Prometheus, we’ve got our engineer guy, on a planet in which he hasn’t yet created life (except for, well, all the plant life that is already there, but I think we’re supposed to ignore that). Now, never mind your front room, imagine having an entire planet all to yourself. Would you wear pants? Of course you wouldn’t. Any sane person would be running about joyfully, jiggling here there and everywhere, enjoying the sense of freedom. You’d let every little bit hang and flop about as much as you like, because who is going to be there to judge?

The Need For Pants At All Part 2.

We don’t ever see any Female Engineers at any point in Prometheus. Thanks for that bit of everyday sexism, Ridley. The Baldy One does not seem to require any sort of sexual act to create life: just a shot of tarry goo, and that’s that.

 So on this basis, would they even have genitals at all? And even if they did, why would they be considered a special part that needs to be nestled away from prying eyes, if the reproductive act doesn’t need to take place? 

Disappointing Pant Technology

Let’s play devil’s advocate here for a while and accept that pants are required for some unknown reason. This then leads on to another problematic issue.

These engineer types appear to be pretty smart. After all, they are the purported creators of life itself, right? Yet with all of their super advanced technology and supremely high IQs, the best they can come up with is a couple of bandages wrapped around themselves, nappy-like.

That just doesn’t ring true to me. Even our lowly human selves can come up with better pant technology than that. We have all sorts of colours, fabrics, designs, access holes, fastenings, elastic etc. But no, this superior life form instead decides to wrap some bandages around its crotch. How much of a faff must those things be to get into? They’d be a right clart on to get back out of if you need a wee. Do they need someone else to help them put them on in the morning, holding the bandages while they spin themselves around? How undignified and inconvenient.

 Lack of Pant Technology Evolution

This first engineer scene is Prometheus presumably takes place thousands of years prior to all of the kerfuffle depicted in the rest of the film. And yet, we are supposed to believe that pant technology has remained starkly primitive through all of this time?

The evidence for this is Noomi, who is merrily wandering around, post-surgery, wearing what is clearly another pair of low tech bandage pants, along with a matching bra. What’s happened to underwire technology? Why are people from this time still wearing the same design of crap pants as their creators? Surely, in the intervening millennia, someone would have realised elastic exists.

And that, dear friends, is a brief examination of the Prometheus Pants Problem. I’ve seen it creeping into other films since (most recently Guardians of the Galaxy), and I won’t rest until these important questions are answered, in full.

Other things to note about Prometheus:

  • They appear to use Joseph Joseph kitchen implements. Nice to know that this mid-range kitchenware design brand is still going strong that fair into the future.
  • Wandering around important historic sites that have been sealed off for thousands of years should probably be done in a more respectful way, if you’re wanting to preserve it for proper research. One guy says at some point “We’ve changed the atmosphere in here”. Well, yes, yes you have, though its nowt to do with the inherent evilness of mankind, and everything to do with barging in, blithely breathing your modern germs all over everything. If a door has been shut for thousands of years, I’d imagine that yes, it might get a little musty in there. Opening the door and allowing a bit of fresh air in is likely to change the atmosphere somewhat.
  • The Dead Head that explodes: Apparently the theory behind this is that this head, reawakened after a very long time, can’t cope with how crap, evil and corrupt the world now is so it explodes. Now, I’m no expert in these matters, but I’m pretty sure that exposing a thousand year old corpse to all sorts of new atmospheres might well lead to a build up of some gases, which on electrocution, may well then explode.
  • The most obvious plot hole of them all, which has most probably been covered in great detail elsewhere, still annoys me. Noomi’s oxygen is about to run out, and its all very tense indeed, but then phew, she is okay. However, it appear to magically recharge itself somehow whilst she tends to her errant offspring, as when she needs it again afterwards the oxygen level in there is just fine. Grrr.

Anyway, I’ll shut up for now, though I won’t apologise for bringing this important matter to your attention. And yes, you will now be forever destined to notice intently all pants being worn in any sci-fi movie, and yes, it will probably ruin all enjoyment for you. You’re welcome :D

Hxxxxx