“Conservative prescribing”

This editorial, an opinion piece by Prof David Healy, was recently published in the BMJ. In this post I intend to explore the arguments made around whether “chemical imbalance” was ever part of standard medical teaching. I will also explore the suggestion, made by some experts that antidepressant prescribing in the western world is “conservative”.

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Professor Healy’s editorial has attracted a number of replies. Here is one:

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A psychiatrist in training gave his view that the above reply was “the cleverest” and then offered his own reply:

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The psychiatrist in training then gave the following link to what he called: “the sensible reaction”:

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I found that I agreed with the statement made in this “expert reaction” by the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists:

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However I found that I did not share the view of Professor David Taylor that the “idea that SSRIs correct an imbalance in the brain never really existed”:

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In the 1990’s, as a psychiatrist in training, I followed the “Defeat Depression Campaign”. A central plank of this was the “chemical imbalance theory” involving serotonin. There was hardly an educational event that I went to where a “Stahl” neurotransmitter diagram was not displayed. Even up till 2007, I still found the Stahl diagrams appearing as part of my CME education:

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In response to Professor Healy’s article on serotonin and depression it concerns me that experts such as Prof Philip J Cowen and Prof David Taylor are suggesting that the “chemical imbalance theory” always was “mythical”. I was there. It was a very real part of my “education” and often given by experts of the day.

Furthermore, it would seem to me that such expertise is considered as sufficient in itself rather than including experience of taking SSRIs both short and long-term.

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In his BMJ editorial Professor Healy gave this stark 2015 statistic:

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It has been argued that this figure indicates over-diagnosis:

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“Are antidepressant overprescribed”  was the question debated between Dr Des Spence and Professor Ian Reid  published in a BMJ Head-to-Head in January 2013.

Are antidepressants overprescribed, BMJ, 2013

A few years before this debate I gave a view on antidepressant prescribing from “my own window” which I submitted as a rapid-response in the BMJ. As I journey through life I often find my views change, but the view from the window I looked out from in 2011 seems still to be very much the same to me.

I was very sad when Professor Ian C Reid died last year, prematurely, as the result of cancer. I trained with Ian Reid in Aberdeen and he was an inspirational speaker and a most committed scientist. His loss is significant.

This research study was published in the British Journal of General Practice in September 2009:

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The study gave a conclusion that I agreed with:


The study supported my view that GPs do not indiscriminately prescribe antidepressants. Here, I should be clear, I am talking about newly diagnosed depression, in a time more than a decade on from the likes of the “Defeat Depression Campaign”. However it remains true that access to psychological therapies, in NHS Scotland, remains a very real “challenge”.

Professor Ian Reid went on to say:

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And gave his view that:

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It is here I depart from sharing Ian Reid’s view. My view is that we need pluralistic evidence, rather than expert opinion alone, that chronic prescribing of antidepressants represents an “improvement in practice”.

The medical profession are generally of the view that long-term antidepressant prescribing is “appropriate” because it is likely that most individuals taking antidepressants have a “recurrent illness” and that such is often demonstrated when they stop taking their antidepressants.

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The problem is that most studies into antidepressants, on which prescribing is based, have been short-term studies, often only 6 weeks. Without longer-term studies and the evidence of experience, we simply cannot be sure why so many individuals receive long-term antidepressant treatment.

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In summary: It is certainly the case that antidepressants are widely prescribed in the Western world.  In my view we need to see more evidence that prescribing of antidepressants, particularly chronic prescribing, is “appropriate” and “conservative”.

Note to reader:
I am not a "Critical Psychiatrist" as I prescribe psychoactive 
medications including antidepressants. I try to do so only if 
indicated, and if this is the patient's preference. To prescribe 
"appropriately" I do my best to share the knowns and unknowns of 
antidepressant prescribing along with explaining potential harms 
and potential benefits. One potential unknown is the optimal 
duration of prescribing. Professor Reid's evidence would 
appear to demonstrate that long-term prescribing is common 

“Believe me, that is not the way to get things done”

This post is about medical education in NHS healthcare: this is called “Continuing Professional Development” (“CPD”).

In this post I will explore the current relationship between medical education with commerce.

The title of this post is taken from a quote by the current Director of Medical Education for NHS Forth Valley in a communication to me on this matter. The Director of Medical Education was scolding me for asking about transparency.

As I get older I find that I see more patterns.

How we “see” such patterns will differ for us all!  My previous post was about a pattern that I had noticed regarding ageing and memory: The parabolic pattern

The pattern in this post is not one of light. It is a dark pattern. A pattern not easily seen.

Before trying to shed some light on this pattern, I want you to know that I am a scientist (as well as an artist) who supports innovation, scientific realism and progression. This is why the Scottish physicist, and poet, James Clerk Maxwell has long been my guide.

The pattern of images that follow (where I will try to keep my words spare) represent my very real concern that science today (and not just “in the past”) has rather too readily become the pocket of industry.

It was Alexander McCall Smith who wrote to me recommending this book:


This week I faced a repeating pattern with this “educational” circular from my new NHS employers:


Professor David Taylor is an Academic Pharmacist and so not registered with the General Medical Council. Prof Taylor has had significant input into the development of UK-wide guidelines on prescribing in mental health. He has been open about his significant financial conflicts of interest


Professor David Taylor, paid by the Pharmaceutical Company Janssen, had earlier this year, given an “educational” talk to CPD teaching with my former employers:


I refused to go to this. Why? Well through much of the previous 6 months, my NHS e-mail in-box had received e-mails (not at my request) from the makers of Asenapine. Several “key opinion leaders” featured in these promotions, including Professor Alan Young (whom more of later) and Prof David Taylor. The following slide comes from this online powerpoint:002

The next in this slide demonstrates good practice as in it Professor David Taylor outlines his comprehensive, and well-spread, financial conflicts of interest:


Even though not a doctor, after I wrote to him, Prof David Taylor submitted his declarations to whopaysthisdoctor.com . We should commend this openness, as here Professor Taylor is a leading example of necessary transparency. It is important however that we consider that in “offering” “education”  Professor Taylor has significant financial under-writing. Professor Taylor has had a significant role in the development of UK-wide guidelines on prescribing in mental health.

Three years back: On the 17th May 2011 I wrote to NHS Forth Valley to say that I found that the link to the “Hospitality Register” was non-functioning. It took two years of polite inquiry for NHS Forth Valley to finally confirm that as an NHS Board it had NO register of interests for ALL staff. I was later to discover (through Freedom of Information requests) that this was a pattern spread across ALL twenty-two of NHS Boards in Scotland:


Eleven years back: in circular HDL(2003) 62 The Scottish Government stated that “Chief Executives are asked to establish a register of interest for ALL NHS employees and primary care contractors”: 


This year: The Director of Medical Education for NHS Forth Valley, said (25 February 2014) “Traditionally we have not registered the various meetings on the list as it was not required of us”. 

I will post some recent examples of sponsored education involving NHS Forth Valley employees. I do so without wishing to focus on any individual. It is important that what I present is understood only as part of a wider pattern.

It may be my error, but I cannot find any declarations made, by those involved in these sponsored educational meetings in any NHS Forth Valley Register. I wrote to the CHP General Manager of NHS Forth Valley on the 20th March 2014, where I included ALL the following examples of employees involved in what would appear to be sponsored meetings.

[the coloured highlights in the following promotions are mine (they are only part of my much wider effort to bring transparency). My endeavour is not to single any individual out.]

[I recognise that the sample I present (based on my much wider pinterest page) is simply the promotions for “education” which have come my way.]




Patterns appear at all levels and not just “local”. For the governance of conflicts of interest, at a UK level, we follow the General Medical Council.  At annual appraisal and at five-yearly revalidation all doctors are asked to sign a probity section where each individual doctor confirms (or not) the following (this screenshot is from my recent Revalidation):


Before closing: the following example of an “educational” “CPD” event reveals a pattern that does not just involve those employed by the NHS such as charities and third-sector organisations:


The pattern is broad. I have no doubt. I recently debated with Professor Clive Ballard at a Royal College of Psychiatry Conference in Durham. I suggested to the organisers, well in advance of the conference, that all those involved might consider that they declared any financial interests in the programme. The organisers agreed that this was a good suggestion. As it turned out I was the only one to declare.


Professor Clive Ballard chose not to reveal in the RCPsych programme, or in his presentation, any potential financial conflicts of interest.

Another speaker at this RCPsych Conference was Professor Allan Young. Like Professor David Taylor he had given hearty support to the promotion of Asenapine (my NHS email in-box was frequent witness to all of the promotions).

At the RCPsych conference, where I was a fellow speaker, Professor Allan Young started out by mocking any need for transparency: “for those of you who watch panorama, I do not give my consent for you to film this”. Professor Allan Young then presented his “Conflict of Interest Statement”. He did not talk his interests through (unlike the rest of his presentation) and my image is thus blurry. Professor Allan Young presented his multiple financial interests in a blink of an eye but also fortunately in a camera click.

In my camera click, I resisted Professor Allan Young’s wishes. Light is important to all patterns.


Following my advocacy, NHS Forth Valley, would seem to be the only NHS Board, out of Scotland’s twenty-two NHS Boards to have an open access register for all employees.

From the evidence I have gathered it seems clear to me that Scottish Health Boards continue to fall very far short of complying with HDL 62. Yet this guidance delivered to ALL NHS Board Chief Executives is now 11 years old!

I am not legally minded. Senior Health Board Managers in Scotland are signing off annual Appraisals and five yearly Revalidation that staff are individually following their employers Guidance (including Scottish Government HDL 62 guidance: guidance issued to all Chief Executives in 2003) . The GMC are clear on what is expected regarding “probity”

It is for this reason that I submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament suggesting that they might consider a Sunshine Act. Other countries have instituted such legislation. Like John Betjeman, I do not welcome bureaucracy, however a central, open access register, enshrined-in-law, should be neither difficult nor burdensome to implement.