WHEN IS RESEARCH NOT RESEARCH?
THE RIOTT HEROIN TRIALS
(NB: RIOTT randomised injectable opiate trials is not connected with RIOT, the UK's only abstinent service user group)
“Clamour grows for heroin on the NHS” shouted the Independent last week. This was news to me, as I imagine it was to the rest of that morning’s readers, writes Kathy Gyngell of the Centre for Policy Studies. A group of nameless government-appointed drug experts were, I read, calling for a nationwide network of prescribing centres.
The article by health editor Jeremy Lawrence quoted a heroin trial’s “study leader”, Professor John Strang, as saying “the findings have sent a ripple of excitement through the addiction treatment community, which is unused to seeing progress with hard core addicts”. By Sunday, the ripple had reached Jack Straw, reported in the Sunday Times as calling for heroin prescribing on the NHS.
The ripple that reached me, however, was of disbelief and frustration. “I’m not sure where they get their facts from regarding heroin users being the hardest to treat. This is certainly not our experience,” emailed Steve Spiegel, a former ‘hard core’ addict now long-term director of the successful Providence Project, a low-cost rehabilitation centre for those the system has failed. For Theodore Dalrympole, this was “the latest expensive scheme to avoid admission of the obvious, that we have been barking up the wrong tree for years”.
Kathy Gyngell’s full blog on the Centre for Policy Studies website is here.
Highlights are below.
NO INDEPENDENT REVIEWS
Sadly, the main body of the media had not shared their scepticism. On BBC Online, home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw wrote that “Heroin supply clinic cuts crime”. Radio 4’s Today programme ran sympathetic features and gave a platform to Strang to assert “The reductions in heroin use were spectacular, and those are validated”. Would people get details later in the day? “Yes, Strang replied, “in proper scientific publications.” Hmm… media cart before the academic horse… Where was the principle of independent peer group review before publication?
Kings College Institute of Psychiatry, the umbrella institution for the trials, also lost its academic inhibitions. Its website displayed the banner “RIOTT a success for chronic heroin addicts” but gave no link to a publication or a report. Yet Kings College does not have to be told that it is a long-established tradition in scientific research to release findings to the media only after the process of anonymous and independent peer review.
Strang knows this, as does any researcher worth their salt. Yet in this instance he has chosen to sacrifice it in favour of securing widespread media coverage. He can save himself the postage of sending his research papers to the British Medical Journal or the Lancet – both of these internationally recognised medical journals exhort researchers not to release findings for public discussion before they have been assessed independently and published within the journals concerned. As a member of the editorial staff of academic journal Addiction, Strang has shown remarkable disregard for this principle.
For this reason alone, his findings should be regarded with considerable caution. It is notable, too, that the last substantive Cochrane Review of four such randomised trials to test heroin maintenance for patient retention, reducing illicit drug use and improved health and social functioning concluded “No definitive conclusions about the overall effectiveness of heroin is possible”.
In response to my request for evidence, I received this from Nicola Metrebian, a senior research fellow and RIOTT trial coordination at the National Addiction Centre, Kings College London: “The findings have not been published and are not yet in the public domain”.
Jack Straw should be aware of this and of the as-yet flimsy basis of his potentially dangerous policy development.
For full details, click here.
The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse stated that, “contrary to a story in today’s Independent, it is not calling for a nationwide roll-out of shooting galleries for injectable heroin”.
However, the home page of its websiteis currently devoted to publicising that it provided the secretariat to the “expert group” on the RIOTT trials and “recommended to government that there should be further demonstration sites”. NTA CEO Paul Hayes states there that “the interim results of the pilots’ study seem encouraging”.