British Medical Journal: NICE sets out steps NHS must take to implement ME/CFS guideline

By Ingrid Torjesen with comment from Dr Charles Shepherd

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has issued an unprecedented implementation statement setting out the practical steps needed for its updated guideline on the diagnosis and management of myalgic encephalomyelitis (or encephalopathy)/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) to be implemented by the NHS.

Such statements are only issued when a guideline is expected to have a “substantial” impact on NHS resources, and this is thought to be the first. It outlines the additional infrastructure and training that will be needed in both secondary and primary care to ensure that the updated ME/CFS guideline, published in October 2021, can be implemented.

The statement is necessary because the 2021 guideline completely reversed the original 2007 guideline recommendations that people with mild or moderate ME/CFS be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and graded exercise therapy (GET). Instead, the 2021 guideline says that CBT should be only offered to support patients to manage their symptoms and that any exercise programme should be overseen by an ME/CFS specialist team.

Many areas have no or very limited specialist ME/CFS services, meaning that services must be commissioned, specialist health professionals need to be trained to deliver these services, and GPs need training in how to care for their patients. “With no nationally commissioned service for ME/CFS in either primary or secondary care, it will be for local systems to determine how to structure their services to achieve the aims of the guideline,” said Paul Chrisp, director of the Centre for Guidelines at NICE.

The 2007 recommendations were overturned during a long and difficult guideline development process. Patient groups had long argued that the recommendations were inappropriate, ineffective, and potentially harmful, and hindered research into the disease. But health professionals raised concerns about the proposed guidelines and the process that underpinned them. Just weeks before the final guideline was due to be published three members of the development committee resigned, royal colleges and other professional bodies signalled that they would not support it, and NICE had to delay publication. The guideline was finally published after a meeting was arranged with stakeholders to iron out differences, but concerns among medical leaders persisted.

When the 2021 guideline was published, Charles Shepherd, honorary medical adviser of the ME Association, told The BMJ that the recommendations were “something that currently cannot be coped with.” After publication of the implementation statement, he said:

“I think NICE have gone as far as they can. It is now up to individual clinical services to reposition what they do in order to comply with the recommendations and for commissioners to start setting up new clinical services where none currently exist – especially in Wales and Northern Ireland.

“A lot of people with ME/CFS are clearly not getting the medical care and support that they need in both primary care and secondary care, especially those who are severely affected and do not have access to any form of domiciliary service or a dedicated inpatient facility.”

“It would obviously be helpful if the royal colleges could also express their support for implementation of the changes, as it’s not clear whether they remain unhappy with the recommendations downgrading CBT and the removal of GET.”

Dr Charles Shepherd, Hon. Medical Adviser to the ME Association

The BMJ asked three royal colleges for a response to the implementation statement, but none responded before publication.

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