Today, I submitted the following letter to the Institute of Medicine with my feedback on the panel for the Diagnostic Criteria for ME/CFS. Seven other advocates signed the letter: Chris Heppner, Claudia Goodell, Joe Landson, Denise Lopez-Majano, Matina Nicholson, Darlene Prestwich, and Tamara Staples.
Thank you for this opportunity to provide feedback on the Institute of Medicine’s provisional committee appointments for the Diagnostic Criteria for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In order to understand the significance of my concerns, I believe you must first understand the damaging legacy of the psychogenic view of ME/CFS. Then I will share my specific feedback about the panel’s composition.
Legacy of Psychogenic Explanations for ME/CFS
For more than thirty years, the psychogenic model dominated the medical mainstream view of ME/CFS. Patients were labeled malingerers with “yuppie flu.” Allegedly, they could not cope with stress, indulged their psychosomatic symptoms, received secondary gain from disability, and simply needed to get therapy and more exercise. I have never met an ME/CFS patient who did not receive this message from at least one doctor.
Through the 1990’s, science seemed to confirm this model. Every investigation for a causative infectious agent failed. Contradictory results prevented the validation of diagnostic biomarkers. And psychologists published data showing that cognitive behavioral therapy and graded exercise therapy produced positive outcomes.
But ME/CFS patients, expert clinicians, and some researchers knew that the data were flawed. Mixed patient cohorts likely contributed to many of the contradictory results. Many of us followed the advice of well-meaning healthcare providers and tried to exercise ourselves out of disease. This therapy was not a treatment, and adverse side effects included relapse, exacerbation of the disease, and increased disability.
Science soon emerged to confirm what we knew empirically. Studies showed that ME/CFS patients have different physiological responses to activity as compared to multiple control groups.(1) Many body systems are implicated in the causation and perpetuation of ME/CFS. Field-testing of multiple case definitions measured what we already knew to be true: that some case definitions incorporated people with primary psychological conditions like depression, along with missed cases of multiple sclerosis, lupus, thyroid disease and primary sleep disorders. (2) Given the ample data showing physiological differences between ME/CFS patients and patients with depression and other illnesses, the inclusion of subjects with primary depression in CBT and GET trials is a fatal flaw in study design.
The psychogenic model of ME/CFS should have faded into obscurity by now. But it persists in open supporters of the hypothesis, and in less overtly expressed attitudes among scientists, doctors, and policy makers. Our long experience with the destructive effects of psychogenic pronouncements has taught us to be wary of these unseen and unvoiced assumptions.
Insufficient Representation of Subject Matter Experts
I acknowledge the selection of seven well-known and well-regarded ME/CFS experts to the panel. I am confident in their individual and collective abilities to examine the data and share their experience with the full group. However, given the nature of the panel’s task, I believe that more ME/CFS experts should be added to the panel.
In creating “evidence-based clinical diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS for use by clinicians,” the panel needs both fresh examination of the data by outsiders and consideration of the collective experiential knowledge of those who know this disease. Research and clinical care in ME/CFS has typically been small-scale and distributed widely among the people doing this work. Only when a critical mass of experts combines their knowledge, such as at the NIH ME/CFS State of the Knowledge Workshop in 2011, do the disparate themes come together in a cohesive picture.
My concern is not a numbers game with the goal of reaching a certain percentage of representation. The panel is missing key expertise:
- First, the absence of a cardiologist is notable. While Drs. Keller, Lerner and Rowe have relevant experience, dysautonomia is too prevalent in ME/CFS for it to be only marginally addressed. Adding a panelist with expertise in postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, vasovagal syncope, and/or neurally mediated hypotension is appropriate. I suggest Julian M. Stewart, M.D., Ph.D. or Marvin S. Medow, Ph.D., both at the Center for Hypotension, New York Medical College.
- Second, there is only one infectious disease specialist on the panel. This is a significant gap in expertise, given the unsuccessful hunt for a causal pathogen in a disease that has all the hallmarks of an infectious trigger. Dr. Martin Lerner is capable, but I suggest adding at least one more infectious disease specialist. Ian Lipkin, M.D., is Director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University. An epidemiologist by training, Dr. Lipkin is known for detection of new pathogens and the role of infection in neurologic diseases. He also has experience in ME/CFS-related research. Another candidate to consider is Jose G. Montoya, M.D., Director of the Stanford ME/CFS Initiative and Professor of Medicine in Infectious Disease at Stanford University Medical Center. Dr. Montoya is a clinician-researcher in ME/CFS and also studies the role of infection in chronic disease.
- Third, as the FDA recognized in their Voice of the Patient report, cognitive problems are a prominent part of ME/CFS. Gudrun Lange, Ph.D. of Beth Israel Medical Center is an expert in cognitive dysfunction in ME/CFS, and would be a strong addition to the panel.
Finally, the absence of psychologist Leonard Jason, Ph.D. from the panel is very troubling. As I am certain you are aware, Dr. Jason has done more work on field-testing ME/CFS case definitions than any other individual. His publications have demonstrated the inadequacies of the Fukuda and Oxford definitions, the correlation between more symptoms and psychopathology in the ME-ICC definition, and have shown that measuring frequency and severity of symptoms distinguishes patients with ME/CFS from those with fatigue alone. (3)
I recognize that one or more of the individuals I am recommending may be unwilling or unable to serve on the IOM panel. I urge you to harness their expertise in other ways. This is particularly true for Dr. Jason. If he cannot serve on the panel, I believe it is essential that he be invited to present to the committee and that his work be a significant part of the panel’s deliberations.
Investigating Bias in Three Panel Members
I believe that three members of the provisional panel may have bias that would preclude their service on the committee. I understand that the IOM’s Conflict of Interest policy bars individuals with bias from panels only when “unwilling, or reasonably perceived to be unwilling, to consider other perspectives or relevant evidence to the contrary.” (IOM Conflict of Interest Policy, p. 4). I also acknowledge the difficulty of assessing bias at a distance. Therefore, I request that IOM discuss and thoroughly consider the potential biases of these three panelists.
First, Dr. Margarita Alegria co-authored a paper on the prevalence and comorbidity of neurasthenia.(4) While this paper did not directly examine the potential overlap between ME/CFS and neurasthenia, I am troubled by the statements on page 1742 that CFS is “a controversial illness which has been argued to be a variant of neurasthenia,” and that individuals “may present with symptoms of neurasthenia, but may otherwise be misdiagnosed as having depression, anxiety, or CFS.” If Dr. Alegria believes that ME/CFS is actually a psychological condition such as neurasthenia, then her presence on the panel is unacceptable. I urge IOM to establish whether Dr. Alegria has such a bias, and remove her from the panel if she does.
Second, Dr. Theodore Ganiats has close ties to the American Academy of Family Practitioners. The AAFP has published inaccurate and incomplete material about ME/CFS as recently as 2012. (5) In fact, the AAFP’s material on CFS illustrates the outdated and incorrect view of ME/CFS that I discussed above, including the claim that childhood trauma raises the risk of the disease and that CBT and GET are effective treatments. (6) Furthermore, one of Dr. Ganiats’s close colleagues, Dr. William Sieber, has given presentations in which he has stated that CFS is caused by psychological problems. (7) IOM should establish whether Dr. Ganiats shares this psychogenic bias and whether he can truly consider the evidence to the contrary.
Third, Dr. Cynthia Mulrow led the last systematic evidence review on chronic fatigue syndrome conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in 2001. Her report stated, “The validity of any definition is difficult to establish because there are no clear biologic markers for CFS, and no effective treatments specific only to CFS have been identified.” (8) If Dr. Mulrow still believes that this is the test for establishing the validity of a definition, then she is not appropriate for this panel. The lack of “clear” biomarkers and specific effective treatment is due to the paucity of research funding. Many promising biomarkers and treatments need only sufficient investment to establish their validity. Furthermore, Dr. Mulrow’s 2001 article on the treatments for CFS states that there was no significant association between case definition used and treatment study outcome. (9) We now know that some case definitions select patients with psychological problems at a higher rate than others, and this must be accounted for in the panel’s analysis. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and everyone on the panel must realize this. Given Dr. Mulrow’s 2001 publications in support of CBT and GET, and the risk of her inability to fairly consider all the evidence, IOM should establish whether she has an entrenched bias.
I acknowledge that I was among the ME/CFS advocates who vigorously opposed the contract with IOM when it became public in September 2013. I remain skeptical of whether the committee’s report will lead to better diagnosis and treatment for all the people suffering from this debilitating disease.
I urge IOM to add more ME/CFS experts to the panel, such as Dr. Stewart, Dr. Medow, Dr. Lipkin, Dr. Montoya, Dr. Lange, and Dr. Jason. All of these scientists will contribute knowledge that is essential to the panel’s task. I further urge IOM to thoroughly investigate and establish whether Dr. Alegria, Dr. Ganiats, and Dr. Mulrow have biases that should disqualify them from service.
Sincerely, and on behalf of the undersigned,
Jennifer M. Spotila, J.D.
Chris Heppner, Ph.D.
Vice President ME Victoria, BC
Claudia Goodell, MS
Patient Advocate- Race to Solve CFS
Joseph D. Landson
ME/CFS Patient and U.S. Navy veteran
Speak Up About ME
Parent, caregiver, advocate
Tamara C. Staples
Patient, 15 Years
Patient Advocate, 5 Years
(1) Light, AR, Bateman L, Jo D, Hughen RW, VanHaitsma TA, White AT, & Light KC. Gene expression alterations at baseline and following moderate exercise in patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia Syndrome. Journal of Internal Medicine, (2011) 271(1), 64–81.
(2) Jason LA, Najar N, Porter N, & Reh C. Evaluating the Centers for Disease Control’s Empirical Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Case Definition. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, (2009) 20(2), 93–100.
(3) Jason LA, Sunnquist M, Brown A, Evans M, Vernon S, Furst J, Simonis V. Examining case definition criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis. Fatigue: Biomedicine, Health & Behavior, Epub ahead of print, accessed Dec 11, 2013: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21641846.2013.862993?journalCode=rftg20&#.UrEQ0Y06Kw8
(4) Molina K, Chen C, Alegria M, Li H. Prevalence of neurasthenia, comorbidity, and association with impairment among a nationally representative sample of US adults. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol (2012) 47:1733-1744.
(5) Yancey J & Thomas S. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Diagnosis and Treatment. Am Fam Physician. 2012 Oct 15: 86(8): 741-746.
(6) http://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/1015/p741-s1.html accessed December 16, 2013.
(7) Sieber, William. Calming the Anxious Brain, accessed December 16, 2013. http://www.innersolutionsforsuccess.com/PPT/CalmingAnxiousBrain_Oct_2013.pdf.
(8) Mulrow CD, Ramirez G, Cornell JE, et al. Defining and Managing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 42). AHRQ Publication No. 02-E001. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; October 2001.
(9) Whiting P, Bagnall AM, Sowden AJ, Cornell JE, Mulrow CD, Ramirez G. Interventions for the treatment and management of chronic fatigue syndrome: a systematic review. JAMA. 2001 Sep 19;286(11):1360-8.