Monitoring treatment harm in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome: A freedom-of-information study of National Health Service specialist centres in England

J Health Psychol. 2021 Jun;26(7):975-984. doi: 10.1177/1359105319854532. Epub 2019 Jun 24.


The use of graded exercise therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy for myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome has attracted considerable controversy. This controversy relates not only to the disputed evidence for treatment efficacy but also to widespread reports from patients that graded exercise therapy, in particular, has caused them harm. We surveyed the National Health Service-affiliated myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome specialist clinics in England to assess how harms following treatment are detected and to examine how patients are warned about the potential for harms. We sent 57 clinics standardised information requests under the United Kingdom's Freedom of Information Act. Data were received from 38 clinics. Clinics were highly inconsistent in their approaches to the issue of treatment-related harm. They placed little or no focus on the potential for treatment-related harm in their written information for patients and for staff. Furthermore, no clinic reported any cases of treatment-related harm, despite acknowledging that many patients dropped out of treatment. In light of these findings, we recommend that clinics develop standardised protocols for anticipating, recording, and remedying harms, and that these protocols allow for therapies to be discontinued immediately whenever harm is identified.

Keywords: chronic fatigue syndrome; clinics; cognitive behavioural therapy; graded exercise therapy; myalgic encephalomyelitis; therapeutic harm; therapeutic risk.