* Ben Goldacre
* The Guardian, Saturday November 8 2008
Last week I failed to distinguish satisfactorily between the fantastical miasmatic theory of disease in the middle ages and the fantastical miasmatic theory of disease as meant by some homeopaths. This made no difference to my argument – that the science of a disease is more interesting than made up nonsense about it – but it was an error, it was mine, and there is no ignominy in clarifying that.
So you’re reading Woman’s Own, and you get to the “Real life – health” pages, and you see “Most people jump when the phone rings unexpectedly, but for Jackie Dewhurst, 39, it could be deadly”.
This was a first person story about Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands, under the headline A Phone Call Could Kill Me. “Now I have to avoid stressful situations at all costs,” says Jackie, “which means I’ve had to bid farewell to horror films, crowded buses and Saturday clothes shopping …
“I started working again as a kitchen assistant at a local primary school. At times I worry that the children might give me a shock, but my colleagues are all trained to give me an adrenaline shot should I have an attack.”
Addison’s disease doesn’t sound like that in any medical textbook I’ve read (apart from anything else you give hydrocortisone, not adrenaline). Your first thought may well be, rather unkindly, that Jackie Dewhurst, 39, is an idiot. Or a blagger, who has hoodwinked Woman’s Own for a couple of hundred quid. Or a fan of attention, perhaps, self-dramatising about her health.
She does also say: “I was walking to the shops near my home in Broughton, North Lincolnshire, when some kids wolf-whistled at me. I tried not to panic, but started to sweat profusely, then fainted. I awoke two days later in hospital, attached to life support.”
Worse, perhaps it’s all true. Her employers must be terrified about the potential for liability.
This is why Jackie is upset. She says the article is rubbish. She spoke to the magazine to raise awareness of Addison’s – which is easy to miss – in good faith, with the support of her patients group. She says they made stuff up for a better story. She is angry that they will not issue a clear correction.
I asked Woman’s Own if they had any evidence for their headline claim as Jackie says she has never said a phone call could kill her. They declined to comment. Jackie denies ever saying that she worries that the children might give her a shock. She does work in a school though, and she’s worried now what her employers might think. Again Woman’s Own declined to comment.
Jackie complained to the Press Complaints Commission. Woman’s Own mounted a successful defence, involving extensive reference to what were said to be the journalist’s contemporaneous notes from the interview with Jackie. The magazine had offered to publish an apology on the issue of adrenaline being wrong, a further article on Addison’s, and a letter from Jackie. And that was enough for the PCC.
But there is another issue here, whether Woman’s Own had an obligation to check the information. As Jackie says: “Even if I had said all the things they claim … surely the magazine would have had some responsibility to verify medical information before they published such claims?”
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