Blog: RCOG report highlights risk of ‘white coat fatigue?’

Yep, the (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) had a very, very bad day at the office yesterday. More importantly, so did mothers-to-be. They deserved much better from the Royal College whose mission since 1947 has been to improve standards in their profession for the benefit of the public. I suspect many in the profession feel let down too.

It is a shame as well because this is one of the College’s new scientific impact reports that I guess was started to improve the evidence base in the field as well as the reputation of the College!

But how a Medical Royal College – institutions known for their fastidious approach to everything – allowed such a report to emerge without the least bit of sense-checking for how it might be received let alone its evidence-less statements is mind-boggling? It is just as well we have sharp-minded organisations such as Sense about Science who won’t let this sort of thing pass.

The College, like many these days, has a patient network. It seems fairly well-developed although my experience is that the Colleges are quite careful about where their patient fora are allowed to tread. But I would be interested to know if they had any sight of the report as it was being drawn up. Public involvement in the course of these things can save many a red face.

The trouble is that bad news travels fast. It also sticks like a burr on the back of a woollen jumper. Yes, many women will just ignore this. But others will be concerned and anxious. I suspect it will also get distorted in its translation from person to person. Then what?

It will be interesting to see what RCOG does about this in the next few days. I doubt it will apologise, Colleges rarely say sorry. It is more likely to hunker down and hope the whole thing goes away for a while, ‘clarifying’ things in a new statement in a few months time.

Above all I hope it doesn’t claim that the problem is people don’t understand risk. I actually think the growing issue is not public understanding of risk but their ability to assimilate huge amounts of often contrary information and make sensible choices.

Being constructive about it, RCOG could hold an open meeting to discuss and explore how such advice might be better communicated to pregnant women. Or use some of its reserves to produce simple and evidence-based health advice literature that every mum-to-be receives plus another one for new mums that they would get with their first free pampers. The point is it needs to learn from this and show that it has learnt from it.

However, I am not going to let my PR colleagues get away without bearing some of the responsibility.

I am reminded of the fact that just a few weeks ago I chaired an ‘Ask for Evidence’ (Sense about Science) meeting at the British Science Communications Conference. It was full of PR officers and comms people discussing how to ensure science stories are supported with good evidence and, where not, how to go about seeking it.

Science communications colleagues must assume greater responsibility for ensuring their organisation has the evidence to support their announcement or story or claim. And to challenge strongly where they believe it is lacking. That may not be easy. But perhaps there is now a case for drawing up a code of ethics for science communications staff if it does not already exist. After all, they are the ones who press ‘Return’ on the news at the end of the day.

Whatever the reasons behind this report seeing light of day it has done no one any favours. A few months ago I was listening to a phone-in on the Jeremy Vine show about diet and, in particular, cooked breakfasts. A lorry driver called in, described his heavy breakfast habit, and said something along the lines of: these men in white coats are always telling you something; you just got to get on with it.

I wonder if we are witnessing a new phenomena – ”white coat fatigue?’

Here is Sense about Science’s comment on the RCOG report:

The RCOG report on risks to mums-to-be from unintended exposure to chemicals is here:

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