UPDATE, 10th Mar: Richard Barr, the solicitor linked to an appalling fraud, boasted that bungling doctors were responsible for the deaths of "as many as 30,000 people each year".
My ASA complaint, available below, expressed my doubts about this conclusion. It now seems that my suspicions were right. The ASA have closed their case and the unsubstantiated claim has been removed from Barr's website - as has everything else!
The slightly scary-looking bloke pictured below is Richard Barr. Not surprisingly, he's a solicitor.
What kind of a man is Richard Barr? A man linked to an appalling fraud, according to the British Medical Journal (BMJ):
"Thanks to the recent publication of the GMC [General Medical Council]’s six million word transcript, the BMJ was able to check [a journalist's] findings and confirm extensive falsification... This means that the MMR [vaccination] scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud"
The journalist in question was Brian Deer of the Sunday Times. He has written:
"[Dr Andrew] Wakefield... had been hired to attack [the MMR vaccine] by a lawyer, Richard Barr: a jobbing solicitor in the small eastern English town of King's Lynn, who hoped to raise a speculative class action lawsuit against drug companies which manufactured the shot...
Barr paid the doctor with money from the UK legal aid fund: run by the government to give poorer people access to justice. Wakefield charged at the extraordinary rate of £150 an hour... eventually totalling, for generic work alone... £435,643 plus expenses. These hourly fees... gave the doctor a direct, personal, but undeclared financial interest in his research... creating an incentive not only for him to launch the alarm, but to keep it going for as long as possible."
Barr's payments were not the only hidden interest. Wakefield had patented his own vaccine and stood to become a very rich man if the MMR vaccine were withdrawn.
Barr now works for Scott Moncrieff Harbour & Sinclair (SCOMO), "a law firm with a difference". He specialises in medical negligence claims, as his website explains:
"It is a grim statistic that possibly as many as 30,000 people die each year and many more are injured, all as a result of mistakes by doctors and medical staff. When I deal with medical claims I try to deal sensitively with the situation respecting the skill of doctors... but acknowledging that claims sometimes must be brought.
30,000 people each year, eh, Dick? I can't find any reference to this figure in any medical journal. I wonder if the claim can be substantiated?
Barr's website doesn't list his sources, but the figure probably comes from a BMJ article from 2004. The article claimed that there were 40,000 deaths in the UK every year caused by medical negligence. It quickly became clear that this claim was baloney. (Free registration is required to read these links.)
"The publication... does not produce any data on hospital deaths but quotes as a reference a conference report in 2001... The alarming headline in the Times is not based on established fact, and, although the [original authors are] committed to putting the available data on medical care in the public arena, the figure of 40 000 patients killed by hospital blunders is not substantiated."
More recently, Barr has been back in the news for threatening his critics with an injudicious libel action.
I wonder if he - or any of his fellow Directors of the Society of Homeopaths - have good cause to sue me? In other words - ASA complaint follows!
"I'm writing to complain about the marketing claims I read today (4th March 2011, at 10pm) on the website www.richardbarrlaw.co.uk
The site promotes the services of Richard Barr, a solicitor.
I've enclosed a screenshot of the page that concerns me, titled "About medical cases" ( http://richardbarrlaw.co.uk/#/about-medical-cases/4533337944 )
1. Mr Barr is a solicitor who describes himself as a "Senior Litigator with the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers" and a "clinical negligence solicitor". His website promotes his services, subject to conditional fee agreements (a.k.a. "no win no fee"), as a solicitor in medical negligence claims.
2. On his website, Barr claims:
"About medical cases - It is a grim statistic that possibly as many as 30,000 people die each year and many more are injured, all as a result of mistakes by doctors and medical staff."
3. On the same page, Barr continues:
"When I deal with medical claims I try to deal sensitively with the situation respecting the skill of doctors... but acknowledging that claims sometimes must be brought."
4. Barr's figure of "as many as 30,000" deaths seems to me to be rather high. I haven't been able to find any published research that supports the claim.
5. Therefore, I'd like to challenge:
(i) Whether the claim that "possibly as many as 30,000 people die each year...all as a result of mistakes by doctors and medical staff", used by Mr Barr to solicit customers for his services as a medical negligence solicitor, can be substantiated;
(ii) Whether the claim is exaggerated;
(iii) Whether the claim may be misleading consumers, because it apparently ignores the fact that many modern drug treatments are known to be toxic, yet still offer better survival rates than no treatment at all.
6. It's not usual for complainants to support their challenges with named research, but there is one paper which I must bring to your attention. It is the most frequently-cited source of iatrogenic deaths in the UK.
7. Aylin et al (BMJ 2004; 329 : 369 doi: 10.1136/bmj.329.7462.369) discusses adverse events in hospitals between 1999 and 2003, and quotes:
"About 850 000 medical errors occur in NHS hospitals every year, resulting in 40 000 deaths."
8. However, the source of the two numbers is not any kind of published research, but a headline in a 1999 issue of the Daily Telegraph. A number of letters published in the BMJ, in response to the paper, confirm this point:
(i) "Adverse events reporting in English hospital statistics: No data were produced" BMJ 2004; 329 : 856 doi: 10.1136/bmj.329.7470.856-c
"The publication by the Dr Foster team does not produce any data on hospital deaths but quotes as a reference a conference report in 2001... The alarming headline in the Times is not based on established fact, and, although the Dr Foster organisation is committed to putting the available data on medical care in the public arena, the figure of 40 000 patients killed by hospital blunders is not substantiated."
(ii) "Adverse events reporting in English hospital statistics: Vague numbers are being perpetuated" BMJ 2004; 329 : 856 doi: 10.1136/bmj.329.7470.856-b
"Aylin et al write in their Dr Foster's case notes that about 850 000 medical errors occur in NHS hospitals every year, resulting in 40 000 deaths. They reference this to a PowerPoint presentation (itself unreferenced) given in Australia in 2001... In fact, the original reads, 'an estimated 850 000 (range 300 000 to 1.4 million) adverse events might occur each year in the NHS hospital sector… some adverse events will be inevitable complications of treatment.' "
9. I can confirm that I have no connections with the alternative medicine industry, no connections with Richard Barr, and no other conflicts of interest to declare."