An Interview with Dr Vernon Coleman

This interview is a composite, consisting of frequently asked questions, and is based on interviews conducted on behalf of magazines in different parts of the world. This interview concentrates on Vernon Coleman's work as a medical author.

Q: Are you a medically qualified doctor? What provoked your scepticism about the medical profession?
A: I am a qualified doctor and registered to practice - though I have not done so for many years. Doctors are necessary and do much good. But my scepticism is, I fear, based on sound scientific basis and my criticisms largely concern the way the medical establishment is organised and the way doctors have allowed themselves to be influenced by commercial forces. I have researched what doctors do with a critical eye and I have proved that too often doctors do more harm than good. In many countries doctors are now one of the three main causes of illness and death (along with cancer and circulatory disease). One in six patients in hospital is there because he or she has been made ill by doctors. Four out of ten patients who receive drug treatment suffer from serious or even life-threatening side effects.It is perhaps hardly surprising that when doctors go on strike, patient morbidity and mortality levels invariably fall. What an indictment.

Q: Do you take medicines if you are ill - if not how do you make yourself well if you fall ill?
A:I will take medicines if I need them and believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But most problems can be dealt with without drugs.

Q: Do you think that doctors are influenced too much by the pharmaceutical industry?
A:I have been a strong critic of the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession since 1976 when I published my first book The Medicine Men in which I described the way that the industry influences and controls the medical profession. It is easy to blame the drug industry (and many of their practices do seem to me to be grotesquely unethical) but I do think that the medical profession should take more of the blame. The drug companies are doing what they are in business to do - make money. It should be up to doctors to be more critical. I don't feel that much has changed over the last thirty years (since I first started writing books on this subject) and the drug companies still have an enormous control over doctors and what they believe. The industry still has enormous influence over all aspects of medical education, and doctors are trained to believe that the only answer to medical problems is, very often, some form of pharmaceutical intervention. That is wrong and it is dangerous.

Q: Surely, medicines must sometimes be used to cure illness.
A: Definitely. I am certainly not opposed to the use of medicines but I am opposed to their overuse and abuse. For example, the overprescribing of antibiotics has led to enormous problems - including the development of superbugs. I have been warning about this problem for decades and forecast the emergence of superbugs some decades ago. The overuse of tranquillisers led to the biggest addiction problem of the 20th century. And often doctors don't really know what they are prescribing or why. For example, doctors sometimes prescribe antibiotics for viral infections (a pointless exercise) and while some doctors give out prescriptions of antibiotics for ten days others give five or even three day courses for the same symptoms. Ignorance and illogicality cause many problems. In the area of painkillers doctors are often too free to use pills when in many instances other methods would be safer and more effective. For example, TENS machines are very effective for combating pain but many doctors don't know about them. The drug industry and the medical establishment have conspired to keep them secret.

Q:More and more people are now turning to traditional, complementary or alternative medicine. Do you believe that more doctors are now convinced of the usefulness of these types of medicine?
A: Sadly, doctors are, as a group, still reluctant to accept that alternative medicine can offer patients a great deal. And too often doctors do an additional weekend course in, say, acupuncture, and then believe that they are holistic practitioners. Holistic medicine means treating the patients with whatever is best for him or her and this is only rarely seen. Sadly, some alternative therapists are so opposed to orthodox medicine that they too fail their patients. In an ideal world the patient would be treated with whatever therapies work best - and with whatever combination of therapies are most effective. It is a tragedy that this is so rare.

Q:Are doctors who prescribe alternative treatments behaving responsibly?
A:Yes. Definitely. As long as they have studied the treatments they recommend. For example, a good doctor should always consider referring patients with back or joint trouble to an osteopath or chiropractor rather than just to a surgeon. I strongly believe in holistic medicine; by which I mean that doctors should prescribe whatever might help a patient get well again. In the absence of holistic practitioners (and there are very few) patients should aspire to be holistic patients.

Q:How can the patient learn the balance between orthodox and alternative medicine?
A:By learning. Read books. Every patient needs to be their own doctor - able to take a real part in the diagnosing and treatment of conditions.

Q:Do you suspect that doctors ever have any a personal interest in recommending medicines from specific companies?
A: There is much evidence showing that doctors can be `bought' with free meals, television sets and other gifts. Their prescribing habits can be influenced by drug company representatives and although this isn't now quite as big a problem as it was, it is still a problem.

Q:Surely researchers wouldn't have the funds to study new drugs to cure diseases if they were not paid by the drug companies?
A:We need a pharmaceutical industry. It would be good if the industry was more honest but I think we should blame doctors for that. Doctors should keep drug companies more honest by being more critical. And doctors should be more independent and should realise that drugs are only part of what they can do for patients. Unfortunately, there is evidence to show that drug companies influence the medical establishment and the medical way of thinking with the result that patients lose out. It is also important to remember that much drug company research goes into developing what are called `me too' drugs - where the company involved simply wants to produce another drug to take advantage of an existing market. And it is for this reason that there are a hundred different painkillers - all doing much the same thing - for doctors to choose from. Too much choice can sometimes be bad because it causes confusion and mistakes. Incidentally, the overall influence of the drug companies on our health has been dramatically over-emphasised. The main influences on our health come from food, water, living and working conditions and so on. The figures show that mortality rates have not improved much in the last century. Infant mortality rates have fallen a great deal because of better housing, better water and so on and these improvements have affected overall life expectancy figures. But drug companies (and doctors) like to pretend that we are all living longer because of drugs. This simply isn't true.

Q:Are you opposed to the use of anti-depressants? Do you think that depression is a disease created by the drug industry?
A: When my campaign against the over-prescribing of tranquillisers led directly to a fall in the number of prescriptions, I forecast that drug companies would start pushing anti-depressants much harder. This is exactly what they did. Anti-depressants now often prescribed for people who are unhappy or who have lifestyle problems. The over-prescribing of these drugs in unsuitable circumstances causes many additional problems.

Q: What other diseases do you think are also `created' by the medical industry?
A: It is frequently claimed that asthma is much commoner than it was. But in fact these days doctors diagnose asthma after a child wheezes just once. And then the patient may be put on drugs for life. Few doctors take the time to look for causes. Many chemicals in the home (for example, soap powder) can cause wheezing. Remove the cause and the problem disappears. And many doctors prescribe anti-hypertensive drugs for patients whose problems could, perhaps, be resolved if they simply ate less fat, lost weight and took exercise.

Q:Do you think that governments connive with the drug industry?
A:Yes, very much so. Governments are frightened of annoying drug companies because of their power and the money they bring into a country. To give a simple example: when they campaigned for victory in 1997, the British Labour party promised to investigate the usefulness of animal experiments. many animal lovers voted for the Labour Party because of this. After the election, and under the influence of the drug companies, the Labour Government lost all interest in stopping vivisection and did everything they could to make sure that the drug companies could do as many experiments as they liked. (Even though when tests on animals show that a drug is dangerous the drug is still used for humans on the grounds that animals are so different to people that bad results can be ignored. Even the most fervent enthusiasts for vivisection admit that they don't know which results they get are useful and which are not. if you don't know which tests are of any use they are all useless.

Q:What about government agencies which exist to protect patients and discipline doctors and drug companies?
A:I used to have more faith than I do now. I'm not sure whether I have become more suspicious or they have changed. Generally I don't have faith in any organisations which exist to protect patients. The problem is that there is too much movement between drug companies and these organisations. Scientists move from one to the other. And in many countries doctors and scientists work for drug companies and the advisory organisations.

Q:How could hospitals become better places for patients?
A:The ancient Egyptians had hospitals with music, flowers etc. Modern hospitals are stressful, bug ridden, bureaucratic and unfriendly. The patient is too often regarded as an inconvenience. Everyone working in hospital should remember that the most important person there is the patient. At least half of all administrators should be sacked and the money spent on more nurses and on taking better care of patients. Caring is an essential part of curing.

Q:What about accusations of doctors receiving money to research new drugs and then not publicising bad or inconvenient results?
A:I have for many years protested publicly about the way that drug companies will suppress inconvenient results. The drug companies should be severely punished for this.

Q:What is the main problem with medicines - the side effects they produce or their poor efficacy?
A:Drugs are often not as effective as drug companies say they are. But the big problem is side effects. I don't believe there is a single drug in the world which doesn't have side effects. If a patient takes a drug to save his life then side effects don't matter too much. But if the drug is being taken for some small problem then it is a tragedy if the drug kills him.

Q:Which drugs do you think are most wildly over-prescribed?
A:Tranquillisers and anti-depressants have ruined many lives by being over-prescribed. But the over-use of antibiotics is probably causing the biggest problems with the emergence of many resistant bugs. Anti-cancer drugs are largely a joke. The world would probably be a better and safer place without any of them. They are hugely profitable but I suspect they kill more people than they save.

Q:What about the growing trend for governments, drug companies and doctors to encourage self-medication?
A:All three encourage self-medication but for different reasons. Governments want people to buy their own drugs because it saves the government money. Drug companies want to sell drugs direct to patients because the profits are higher. And doctors encourage self-medication because it means less work for them. Self-medication is fine if patients know what they are taking and why.
Unfortunately, the information available is often patchy, unreliable and inadequate. Patients over-use drugs and suffer nasty side-effects as a result. if a patient taking a drug develops new symptoms then, by Coleman's Law, the new symptoms are caused by the drug.

Q:Do medicines damage the human organism's defence mechanisms?
A:I strongly believe that the human body has sound defences against illness. I first wrote about this in my book Bodypower in 1983. Over-use of drugs damages these self-defence mechanisms and makes the individual more vulnerable.

Q:Sum up your attitude towards prescription drugs.
A:Drugs can save lives. But they can also kill. We need more doctors who understand the benefits and dangers more fully and more objectively.

Q:Do you think that medical researchers ever waste time and money?
A:Drug companies spend too much time and money looking for me-too drugs, new variations on profitable themes. They are, for example, constantly looking for new tranquillisers and anti-depressants because these are profitable. And they are constantly introducing new drugs which are promoted with great enthusiasm because they fit a marketing niche and then quietly withdrawn and forgotten a few years later. And remember that drug companies often create markets for their drugs by creating illnesses - as they have done so successfully for example with drugs for the menopause.

Q: The incidence of psychological disease is increasing dramatically. Do you have any idea why?
A:There are huge profits to be made out of tranquillisers, sleeping tablets and antidepressants. Most of the patients taking these drugs don't need them and don't benefit from them. The only people who really benefit are the drug companies. Doctors prescribe these drugs because handing out prescriptions is quicker and easier than investigating causes and offering proper advice.

Q:You say that doctors are not taught well. How should medical students be taught?
A:Students should be taught true holistic medicine. they should learn to see the patient as a person. And they should investigate all the causes of an illness (environment, immune system, stress etc) before offering a solution. Students should be taught that patients can benefit from a mixture of treatments including, where necessary, drugs, surgery and alternative medicine.

Q:Do you think that doctors are slow to accept new ideas?
A:Doctors have been very slow to recognise the importance of diet in health. There has been evidence for decades showing that meat causes cancer. If you eat lots of read meat you are more likely to die of cancer. That's a fact. Doctors don't see this because they rarely read original research. They just read the leaflets handed out by the drug companies - which only mention drug therapies. And the medical journals, which make huge amounts of money from drug company advertising, don't deal with these issues either. I recently read about a doctor who was prescribing meat for his patients because he thought it would make them healthier. I reported him to the General Medical Council on the grounds that he was doing something that was dangerous to his patients but the GMC wasn't interested, of course. The GMC is far more concerned with defending the establishment than looking after patients interests.

Q:What damage can medical check-ups cause to patients? Don't you think that medical check-ups can discover disease in early stages?
A: Check-ups are no more use than a single bank statement. If you had one bank statement a year it would give you a false view of your financial health. Medical check-ups produce a lot of false negatives and false positives and give people a false sense of security. It is much better to tell patients what problems to look out for - and to tell them of the significant warning signs that show impending problems.

Q:What damage can occur after taking vaccines?
A:Vaccines have caused (and cause) enormous problems. I have been a critic since the 1970s. They can damage the brain and the body. Their value is wildly over-emphasised and their danger wildly under-emphasised. The problem is that some vaccines do prevent the spread of diseases. But at high cost to individuals. Governments don't mind sacrificing individuals for the good of the community. I don't think doctors should do this. Anyone having a vaccination should make sure that their doctor signs a document taking responsibility if things go wrong (if patients did this there would be far fewer vaccinations.) There has been much research showing the dangers of vaccines. But some of this research is suppressed because it is inconvenient. I first became aware of the dangers with the whooping cough vaccine. But I have grave doubts about all vaccines. My books contain more specific information.

Q:Don't you think vaccines have helped eradicate diseases such as polio? Isn't this a good argument in favour of vaccination? In poor regions diseases such as measles are very dangerous. Aren't vaccines a way to prevent many deaths?
A:If you accept that thousands of individuals will die or suffer great disabilities for the sake of the community then vaccines probably have a place. I think the price is too great. Many great claims are made for vaccines. But the claims are usually overdone. Many diseases were reducing in numbers long before vaccines were introduced. Better living conditions and antibiotics - not vaccines- are responsible. If you look at the graphs you will see that infectious diseases were falling before vaccines were introduced and that vaccines now kill more people than they save.

Q:The world dreams of a vaccine against AIDS or cancer. Do you think it's a possibility?
A:No, There are much better ways to deal with the problems. Improving the immune system is the key.

Q:The risk of a hospital infection is high, but some diseases have to be treated inside hospital. How can a patient know whether the risk is worth it or not?
A:If their condition will kill them if they do not go into hospital then going to hospital is obviously essential. But I would try to keep out of hospital for things which did not threaten my life.

Q:Does the body have the power to cure diseases alone?
A:Definitely. I have written about this in books such as Bodypower, Mindpower and Superbody.

Q:Don't you accept that medical advances are responsible for increases in life expectation.
A:No. This is a myth put forward by drug companies and the medical establishment. Better living conditions are responsible for a reduction in infant mortality. And it is the reduction in infant mortality which has led to apparently greater life expectation. People who had survived childhood lived to their 80's or 90's a century or two ago. There are more old people around today because populations have grown. and there are problems dealing with them because there is more chronic illness and because young families no longer have the time or money to look after their old.

Q:Do you think that the return of the old-fashioned family doctor could improve things?
A:Definitely. The real family doctor acts as the patients' interpreter and agent, helping to guide them through every available form of diagnosis or treatment, explaining what is going on and providing support. Sadly, real family doctors are now a rarity. The money is spent on unnecessary drugs and on administration instead.

Q:You have said that during some doctors' strikes, the mortality rates decreased. Is that really the case?
A:Yes. Too many investigations and too much treatment causes many illnesses. In many instances the body can heal itself without medical help. Strikes in both America and Israel have led to a fall in mortality rates.

Q:What is the secret of a good doctor?
A:The doctor should listen, listen and listen. Very often a good doctor can learn more from talking and listening than from examining. High-tech medicine is all very well, but just listening is still crucial. And many doctors don't find the time to listen.

Q:Is being a vegetarian a good way to prevent disease?
A: Yes. There is no doubt about this. The scientific evidence is summarised in my book Food for Thought and on my website.

Q:Are you vegetarian?
A:Yes. I am vegetarian because I don't want to eat animals. But this is not why I recommend that readers follow a vegetarian diet. I believe that eating meat causes many diseases and that a vegetarian diet is much healthier. If I believed that meat was essential it would be my responsibility as an author to tell the truth - though I would still not eat meat myself.

Q:Were you given vaccines as a child?
A:I was given some vaccines as a child and, fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones: I survived them. But when I was a child we were given far fewer vaccines than children are given these days. The risks from most of the diseases for which vaccines are now given are slight. For example, measles does not kill many children. Vaccines are given for the economic benefit of the community rather than the health of the individual. If you approve of that then you can approve of vaccines. I consider it to be a fascist political attitude rather than a healing, humanitarian attitude.

Q:What are your political views? Would you describe yourself as left or right wing?
A:I am neither left nor right wing (though readers sometimes assume I am one or the other - and it is not unknown for me to receive mail on the same day accusing me of being an extremist in both directions - I have even received mail accusing me of being an establishment supporter, a concept which would, I feel sure, be a considerable surprise to the establishment). I am enraged by injustice, inhumanity and oppressive authority and my concerns are merely to fight for freedom and justice.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2006