This article is an opinion piece. I am not lawyer or medic.

If you think my title looks like one of those lists in IQ tests were they get you to pick the odd one out, you’d be right, only this time one the question is what is missing?

If you thought ‘medical experts’, you got it right.

Peter Griffin has said quite a bit on this, so as a practical matter there is little left for me to add, but let me add my voice to express concern over the coverage given to this story in the way a (scientifically-minded) movie critic might.

My introduction to this story was John Campbell’s interview with lawyer Mai Chen, however this media story actually starts with an earlier documentary on 60 minutes which presents the case of a patient seriously ill from pneumonia from H1N1 (aka ’swine ’flu’) where the family urged a medical team to use high-dose intravenous vitamin C to treat their critically-ill relative. The account of events is that the doctors were (understandably) reluctant to carry out the unorthodox procedure, but eventually relented under pressure that included correspondence from lawyer Mai Chen. The patient recovered: the program implies that this unorthodox treatment is the reason.

Whatever the motivations and reasoning in presenting it as they did, the documentary pushes a barrow rather than explores the subject.

I suppose it is a valid option for documentary producers looked at one way (I’ve seen this argument presented elsewhere), but I dislike it. Polarised material makes for good ratings, I guess, but it’s also poor coverage.

In short, where was the balance?

It’s ironic.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the media’s tendency towards ’he said, she said’ balance: it‘s badly flawed for subjects that rest on factual material. But here I am wondering where it was.

They don’t explain that with two or more alternative explanations one cannot plump for one over the others without further evidence. They don’t present independent medical comment. They don’t show what is known (or not) from research.

Mr Smith’s survival is not ’proof’ of efficacy of intravenous vitamin C injection. That this treatment was applied – but not it’s outcome – is certainly proof of the stubbornness of this family, their beliefs, and perhaps the power of letters from lawyers, but research evidence requires more than one case history.

The legal aspect leads us to the follow-on story in the current events show, Campbell Live.

Campbell’s interview of lawyer Mai Chen, who represented the family, wanted to explore (only) the angle of what rights does a family have. I think of it as the distinction between wishes and rights: one might wish for something, but not have a right to demand it. It’s an interesting question and a perfectly valid one to explore. However, I wasn’t happy with Chen’s diversions to speak about medicine and Campbell’s choice to use only her to speak, given her involvement in the events.

I would have preferred to have seen this explored by an independent lawyer, one not involved in the case, and for a medical opinion to be added to the discussion, even if only from a legal/rights perspective. I would have much preferred a longer segment, explaining the what is known about the medical aspects (this would be beyond what the Campbell team seemed to want to cover).

I’m no lawyer, but I struggle with the idea that it is reasonable to demand that a doctor to carry out a procedure against their professional advice. I would like to think any professional would have sympathy. Clients do naïvely ask businesses of all stripes to do unsound things, but reputable businesses don’t acquiesce.

Encouraging the public to place this sort of pressure on medical groups, or any other professional group whose work impacts on other’s lives in a substantial way makes me feel very uncomfortable. It seems to me that it opens up a very nasty can of worms.

I bring this up because Chen presented medical opinion (as opposed to what is known), claiming that intravenous vitamin C was a sound treatment for the particular case (swine flu), citing it being ’well-researched.’ There’s always room for new treatments in medicine, but a sure sign of trouble is when claims made by unregistered practitioners, wishful relatives or spouses, or advocates (lawyers included!) run ahead of what has been tested in a clinical setting.

John Campbell’s stepped in at this point, steering the discussion back to the legal issue.

On having the legal rights question put to her again, Mai Chen replied ’In the end of the day it’s professional judgement […]’, which is what I would have thought, it’s just that where I thought it would have rested too.

(She goes on to make a ’they [the doctors] have nothing to lose’ argument, but I worry that argument this works best, even only, looking back on a successful case.)

There are no two ways that Alan Smith is a lucky man, and it’s always good to hear someone survive being as ill as he was. Like most people, more than one person I’ve been directly acquainted with has come through serious medical issues. Good for all of them, Alan Smith included.

I just hope that for the price of brief period of exposure, a hot story, a splash on the mid-week news, medical staff don’t get to face a lot nonsense for a long time to come.


Purely as a curious aside I ran into while researching this, the journalist of the 60 minutes documentary – Melanie Reid – is a previous winner (or should that be loser?) of the Skeptic’s Society’s Bent Spoon Award, now in it’s eighteenth year, for her

August 22 segment “Back from the Dead” profiling Taranaki medium Jeanette Wilson.

Other articles on Code for life:

All things pooped

A booster falls

Have your say on the development of a Natural Health Products Bill

An horrific case of natural health treatment of cancer

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies