Experts: a celebration of people who know stuff


Who you gonna call?

Michael Gove thinks we’ve had enough of experts. He can live as he chooses, but I have an appointment with a dentist next week, rather than an enthusiast with a pair of pliers. I also have the enormous good fortune to talk  to experts in a variety of fields for my work. These are some of my favourite experts this year:

Kevin Moore, professor of hepatology at London’s Royal Free Hospital, changed the way I think about alcohol. I interviewed him about the “dry January” trend and his remarks have stayed with me over the year. I haven’t had a “dry 2016” (events being a little challenging for that) but I certainly keep a closer eye on how much I’m knocking back and how often.

Jane Maher, chief medical officer of Macmillan Cancer Support, opened my eyes to the challenges that face cancer survivors, especially those who had the disease as children or adolescents. The wonderful improvements in treatment for childhood cancers in particular are to be celebrated, but the question now is how to ensure these young cancer survivors have the best possible quality of life, not just quantity.

Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Plymouth University’s Peninsular Medical School, has done more research into herbal and homeopathic medicine than most other researchers. He’s an outspoken expert that many people love to hate, but he’s done the spadework and earned the right to have his say. I talked to him about whether pharmacies should stock homeopathic remedies. “It’s quite clear – they should not be actively selling these as medicines,” he said.

Daniel Taylor, Director of Data Science at NHS Digital, was admirably forthright when I asked him earlier this year about the possibility of a cybercrime attack on an NHS hospital. “It’s absolutely something that could happen,” he said. The week my article was published, it did. Hospitals in Lincolnshire had to cancel operations, due to a cyber attack currently being investigated by police. I’m taking his warnings about online security seriously, for home and work.

To round off the year, I talked to some terrifyingly brilliant people from Google DeepMind, Oxford Robotics Group and Plymouth University about where robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are taking medicine. Will the machines take over? Not from highly-trained, experienced, skilful surgeons and physicians, the AI experts concluded. But from humble hacks like me? There’s a 3.8% chance that writers will be replaced by computer algorithms, according to research. With luck, my article will be published before that happens.

Meanwhile, here are some good sources of expertise, in case you should find yourself in need:

  • NHS Choices, for straightforward health information. A special plug for Behind The Headlines, an excellent service (which I, ahem, write for) in which trained evidence-based medicine specialists (and me) pick apart the research behind health-related news stories.
  • The Conversation, a thought-provoking news and current affairs website, featuring readable articles written by academics who are specialists in these fields, from Brexit to climate change. A great way to learn more about a story from someone who’s actually studied the topic.
  • The Cochrane Library, aka the home of evidence-based medicine. When medical researchers want to know what’s already known about a treatment, the first thing they do is check Cochrane. Cochrane Reviews systematically gather, sift and pool decent-quality evidence about whether treatments work, then summarise the findings. Simple, but jolly hard to do.




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