(Taken from the Spring edition of “Breakthrough” magazine produced by ME Research UK.)
There is a considerable lack of information about those people with ME/CFS who are severely ill. They are often neglected—even though they have worse prospects of recovery—and under-represented in what little research is done.
A large part of the problem is that their challenging circumstances mean these individuals have difficulty accessing medical care and engaging in medical research. Is there any way of improving this situation?
With funding from ME Research UK, Victoria Strassheim and colleagues at Newcastle University have been conducting a programme of research concentrating on severely affected ME/CFS patients. Over the last couple of years, Victoria has published a review of existing research on severe ME, and an exploration of the effects of deconditioning in these patients. A third paper was recently published in BMJ Open, and looks specifically at how to include severely affected ME/CFS patients in research.
The first part of the project was to attempt to contact and evaluate patients with severe ME/CFS within the Northern England Clinical Network. The participants were adults with ME/CFS who were wheelchair-, house-, or bed-bound. A total of 483 questionnaire packs—including the Barthel Functional Outcome Measure and the De Paul fatigue questionnaire—were sent out to those people identified.
Unfortunately, only 63 packs were returned, although 76% to 88% of participants managed to complete the questionnaires successfully. The responses provided a host of information on the burden of symptoms and functional difficulties patients have to live with. The findings of the survey are freely available to download from the BMJ Open website: bit.ly/StrassheimSurvey.
The second part of the project involved making a series of home visits to five severely ill ME/CFS patients, and attempting to complete assessments previously conducted in people with mild or moderate ME/CFS.
Over the course of four visits, a number of activities were attempted, including various physical and respiratory tests, cognitive assessments, and several questionnaires. Two patients were able to complete all of the assessments, while the other three achieved around 50%, and were unable or refused to perform the other tests, or could not attend due to ill health.
The investigators conclude that people severely affected by ME/CFS can engage with research, but they have a considerable burden of symptoms and a poor quality of life, and they need more support during the research process. The use of “research advocates” is suggested, to help engage and recruit these individuals into clinical studies.