NHS meltdown

by reestheskin on 12/05/2016

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I don’t tend to blog or write much about the nitty-gritty of some of the day job. And I try to avoid the partisanship that affects so much of medicine in terms of this disease or that disease being a priority….  can we have more research money or money for more doctors etc. But this post is perhaps an exception, and it is written out of utter frustration at the incompetence of the UK health services.

Some data from a paper in press in the JID looking at age-cohort models of melanoma, trying to predict what might happen over time. When I came into dermatology, crude incidence rates for melanoma /100,000 were 5.8. When I retire (if I get that for) they are estimated to be 31.4/100,000. A timespan of one career.

Some context. Yes, this is incidence not mortality; diagnostic patterns have changed over time; and our knowledge of the natural history of melanoma, incomplete. But, in the absence of a major scientific advance that changes the field ( I see little evidence of this), incidence rates will be a key driver of health care needs. Given that melanoma diagnosis is clinical, and that we need to see 10–20 patients to pick up one melanoma, we are looking at a sixfold change in workload over one clinician’s career. And this ignores the more intensive nature of treatment and follow up, so workload will increase even more. Nor is melanoma the most common cancer we see. If cancer is ‘half our work’, melanoma rates are possibly an underestimate of what changes we will see, as the exponent relating incidence to UVR, is even higher for the non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSC).

At present, perhaps 20% of UK consultant dermatologist posts are vacant, and the UK has the lowest number of dermatologists per unit population in the EU by an order of magnitude (certainly in comparison with the German speaking world). I will repeat that: by an order of magnitude. Primary care is in meltdown, too.  And while there are lots of well qualified  trainees who want to become dermatologists, training positions are essentially static, reflecting classic market corruption by a monopoly. And to cap it all, the Colleges (‘little Englanders’) have recently made the situation even worse, with bizarre changes to dermatology training, that will worsen care in the UK, rather than reflect the changes that will be necessary looking to the future:bracing forward with their eyes on the rear view mirror.

This is not an easy problem to solve. Nor do I think disease rates have to drive doctor numbers in a 1 for 1 way (they don’t); we need to rethink how this  profession works.  But if you claim to provide a national health service, it is surely negligent not to at least realise that there is a problem — and tell people. My university produces plans. Yes, lots of padding, but also attempts to think how we will function in 2020 and 2025. If you look at health boards, in any meaningful sense, I just see a void. And of course, this isn’t just about dermatology, as my GP politely joined out to me last night: it is across the board.

Skin biology 04. Urticaria : from nettle stings to autoimmunity

by reestheskin on 21/04/2016

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A short video on urticaria and the biology of the mast cells


Skin biology 03: skin pigmentation

by reestheskin on 16/04/2016

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Here is number 3. My favourite bit of skin biology.

Skin biology 02: from sunburn, to DNA and skin cancer.

by reestheskin on 15/04/2016

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Here is video number 2 in the ‘clinical’ skin biology series.

Skin biology 01: the basics

by reestheskin on 13/04/2016

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I have been busy producing and updating some videos. Here is the first in a series on skin biology.

Its dermatology Jim, but not as you have heard it before

by reestheskin on 24/02/2016

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Hywel Williams gets lyrical about atopic dermatitis. Worth a cwtch, as we might say.

Neanderthals and seborrhoeic keratoses

by reestheskin on 17/02/2016

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This made me laugh. I have got used to MC1R mutations and red hair in Neanderthals, but this article (full research paper in Science here) brought a smile to my face, even if I am still a little hazy on the genetics.

JBS Haldane once commented ‘that God would appear to be inordinately fond of beetles’, based on the observation that the world was so full of different species of beetles.

I have long had similar thoughts about seborrhoeic keratoses. God must be inordinately fond of them. Seborrhoeic keratoses are benign skin tumours, some of which contain identified mutations: they generally attract little serious research interest (apart from yours truly, of course). However, their significance clinically is enormous. This is because they are incredibly common as people move into their fourth decades and beyond, and because they vary so much in their morphological appearance. They mimic everything, including melanoma. So, most things referred as possible melanomas in many clinics, will turn out to be harmless seborrhoeic keratoses. Of course, a more cynical view is that since seborrhoeic keratoses are such great mimics, they in effect create lots of work for dermatologists. I suppose I should say thank you, next time I bump into one of my distant cousins, but the basis of the link — if confirmed — also deserves some serious mechanistic thought.

Publishing: compare and contrast

by reestheskin on 09/02/2016

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Remember those compare and contrast questions (UC versus Crohns; DLE versus LP etc.). Well, look at these two quotes from articles in the same edition of  Nature.

The first from the tsunami of papers showing that ‘Something in rotten in the state of Denmark Science’ — essentially that the Mertonian norms for science have been well and truly trampled over.

Journals charge authors to correct others’ mistakes. For one article that we believed contained an invalidating error, our options were to post a comment in an online commenting system or pay a ‘discounted’ submission fee of US$1,716. With another journal from the same publisher, the fee was £1,470 (US$2,100) to publish a letter. Letters from the journal advised that “we are unable to take editorial considerations into account when assessing waiver requests, only the author’s documented ability to pay”. 

The second is about attempts to piggyback on the arXiv server. An earlier article and blog post from Timothy Gowers says more.

Discrete Analysis’[the journal] costs are only $10 per submitted paper, says Gowers; money required to make use of Scholastica, software that was developed at the University of Chicago in Illinois for managing peer review and for setting up journal websites. (The journal also relies on the continued existence of arXiv, whose running costs amount to less than $10 per paper). A grant from the University of Cambridge will cover the cost of the first 500 or so submissions, after which Gower hopes to find additional funding or ask researchers for a submission fee.

Well done the Universities of Cambridge and Cornell (arXiv). For science, the way forward is clear. But for much clinical medicine, including much of my own field, we need to break down the barriers between publication and posting online information that others may find useful. This cannot happen until the financial costs approximate to zero.

Updated site

by reestheskin on 06/10/2015

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My main site,, has had a makeover. The design is in place but some of the content I will need to amend over the next few weeks. If your interests include skin cancer, it includes a new skin cancer atlas with close to ~600 high quality images. Works on mobile too.  I will be adding more educational content, including videos soon.

Musings in Rotterdam at the ESDR

by reestheskin on 11/09/2015

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I am at the ESDR 2015 in Rotterdam. Strange sort of place, I haven’t been here before, but I guess there was a lot of war damage (the exact details of which have subsequently been explained to me by a Dutch colleague, Marcel Jonkman). Many parts of the city look like a toy town with buildings that I first saw in comic books when I was a kid. I find it hard to imagine it being a home — but then I don’t live here. On the other hand, lots of nice bars and coffee shops; and bikes. And the Dutch always seem so friendly, and possess a great sense of humour (meaning I tend to laugh, when they laugh).

As for the meeting, well… Leo Szilard, suggested many years ago that presenters should just stand up and announce their conclusions, in a sentence or two. If the audience think the conclusions reasonable, they should quickly then sit down again. On the other hand (and he was a physicist), if the conclusions sounded unreasonable, then they would need to spend time justifying their thinking (or their data). In biology, or medicine, this approach is problematic. Treatment X works better than treatment Y? Not much to say, except that this argument illustrates why so much of scientific conferences no longer consist of science. Second, even biology has so many myriad pathways that it is so hard to frame experiments as tests of hypotheses, rather than stamp collecting. Biology is just messy, and I remain amazed that we can discover anything useful at all. But we can, and we do.

There was a nice keynote by Cédric Blanpain on tumour heterogeneity. I once claimed to know something about this, but since I was reading in this area, technology has moved on. Nonetheless, at the risk of sounding like somebody who always says there is nothing new under the sun, I think many of the key questions that people were framing 25 years ago, still remain unanswered: how do we deal with molecular heterogeneity (and the drivers of tumour heterogeneity), and how do we therapeutically get round this issue? Is there a bigger problem in cancer?

As for the Szilard approach, the ESDR have tried, and it works. Short one or two sentence statements, ending with ‘if you want to find out why, visit my poster’. Neat. And posters can be fun.

How to approach a patient with a pigmented lesion?

by reestheskin on 30/08/2015

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This is up on my Vimeo page , as well. How to approach and think about pigmented lesions. #fOAmed.


by reestheskin on 04/08/2015

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There was  a recent article in the NEJM about regulation and sunscreens. Much of this world is more regulation than science, a la the murky worlds of pharma, and more about shifting units than providing value. I wrote a letter highlighting some of the problems of confusing ‘regulation’ with ‘science’. The text is below. Links here and here.

The role of UVA, and sunscreens in preventing skin cancer

The statement that UVA is ‘most closely linked to cancer’ is lacking in nuance. The evidence is probably firmer for UVB for some types of skin cancer, but there remains genuine debate about UVA, especially for melanoma. The attempt to demarcate sunscreens that prevent burning from those that might prevent cancer, is misplaced. Damage from UVR is a continuous variable,and burning is not a well defined term operationally. Erythema varies across orders of magnitude of UVR exposure,and it is easy to demonstrate DNA damage without erythema. If you prevent ‘erythema’ or ‘sub-erythema’ (that is changes in blood flow that you can measure but not see) you might imagine that you will prevent cancer in the long term, although the evidence to support this reasonable belief is sparse, especially for melanoma. Pretending that only a sunscreen with a SPF greater than 15 can achieve this, whereas those beneath 15 ‘just’ reduce erythema, seems to me to be taking a liberty with scientific common sense. How the sunscreens are used in the real world (thickness, frequency of re-application) probably adds in more variance, as the author notes.

The crisis in dermatology

by reestheskin on 14/06/2015

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Fairly dismal reading here and here. Much of what has happened in the UK is a result of a health service that is not based around clinical need, and in which most decision makers might as well believe in fairies. The mistake is to imagine that we got into this mess because of a lack of money. We got into this mess for much the same reason that much of  UK industry has collapsed: the people making decisions have no technical competence in the relevant domains. If it was left to the NHS,  BMW would not employ engineers (‘its just process management, isn’t it, so let’s reorganise the workflow, and set some targets?’).

So, you receive an email about yet another new author-pays online journal. This one is called Global Dermatology, with the modest abbreviation, GOD. (Not certain how that works). Anyway, you click on the links in the email, to find they are invalid. You open up the email in a browser and, yes, the links don’t work. Just where you might want to place your research for eternity…[A Google search leads you here] [direct link to this post]

Chantelle Winnie, and vitiligo.

by reestheskin on 15/02/2015

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Chantelle Winnie via the Guardian

Just pictures of melanoma, right?

by reestheskin on 14/02/2015

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There are areas of medical research that are more legitimate than others. Finding genes is OK, as is finding drugs. But other bits of the health enterprise seem immune to rational scrutiny. One area that has bugged me for years is the way hospitals, charities, professional bodies and others plaster images of skin cancer around, on the assumption that this will ‘make things better’. It might, or it might not. So here is a recent paper of ours on this topic. Take away message: if there is a fixed resource envelope, many if not most strategies may make matters worse. The abstract is below. The images will of course remain up — I am not certain the rationale is the obvious one.

Abstract: Using an experimental task in which lay persons were asked to distinguish between 30 images of melanomas and common mimics of melanoma, we compared various training strategies including the ABC(D) method, use of images of both melanomas and mimics of melanoma, and alternative methods of choosing training image exemplars. Based on a sample size of 976 persons, and an online experimental task, we show that all the positive training approaches increased diagnostic sensitivity when compared with no training, but only the simultaneous use of melanoma and benign exemplars, as chosen by experts, increased specificity and diagnostic accuracy. The ABCD method and use of melanoma exemplar images chosen by laypersons decreased specificity in comparison with the control. The method of choosing exemplar images is important. The levels of change in performance are however very modest, with an increase in accuracy between control and best-performing strategy of only 9%.

Authors: Ella Cornell, Karen Robertson, Robert D. McIntosh, Jonathan L. Rees

Full open access paper here.

Dermofit library available

by reestheskin on 13/02/2015

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Our Dermofit library is available for academic researchers. There is  a license, and a nominal fee to cover admin charges. Dermofit was funded by the Wellcome Trust, and we are continuing to commercialise some aspects of this work. The work was led by myself and Prof Bob Fisher in Edinburgh Informatics. Dermofit page here with some publications here (incomplete, as I write).

Well, when was the exam?

by reestheskin on 21/01/2015

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Access to skincancer909 Well, when was the exam?



Drug rash? What exactly do you mean?

by reestheskin on 24/11/2014

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Drug rash, what exactly do you mean? from jonathan rees on Vimeo.

Teaching video: what has changed in dermatology?

by reestheskin on 14/11/2014

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What has changed in dermatology in one clinician’s lifetime from jonathan rees on Vimeo.

Should you lie in the sun?

by reestheskin on 13/11/2014

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Is skin cancer an unhelpful term?

by reestheskin on 04/05/2014

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Is skin cancer an unhelpful term? from jonathan rees on Vimeo.

Eczema in a little over 5 minutes

by reestheskin on 27/04/2014

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Eczema in almost 5 minutes from jonathan rees on Vimeo.

Acne in 5 minutes

by reestheskin on 23/04/2014

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Acne in five minutes from jonathan rees on Vimeo.

Sun protection factor (SPF) in 5 minutes

by reestheskin on 22/04/2014

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Sun protection factor (SPF) in 5 minutes from jonathan rees on Vimeo.

Competition for derm posts

by reestheskin on 09/04/2014

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Derm has been a very very popular specialty in the US for many  decades. Some of this reflects work / life stuff, the ability to mix surgery and physician-like diagnostic skills, and because skin disease matters to patients a great deal, and if they purchase their own care, they put a big value on it. (And in truth the fact that acute medicine is deeply unpopular and unsustainable as a longterm career). I have been told similar changes are playing out in the UK, but I hadn’t seen any figures. Here is a summary for ‘medical’ (sic) specialities from the RCP just published in ‘Clinical Medicine’ showing, as for lots of domains, the winds blow east across the Atlantic.

ST3 recruitment


by reestheskin on 26/02/2014

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Another computing metaphor might be useful at this stage, but it points us in a very different direction. Based on the paradigm that pharma companies have to follow to obtain drug registration, we have assumed that guides to clinical practice have to be hierarchical and bureaucratically “quality assured.” This is most obvious in countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), where the state wishes to be the sole arbiter of how people are treated (in part because much health care is tax-payer funded but also because the state likes to assert control of health). The World Wide Web offers us another model of  (clinical) expertise, one in which the idea of a single central authority assuring the truth or falsity of statements has been replaced by a community—or cacophony, depending on one’s viewpoint—of voices. Here expertise is distributed, and the measures of truth are perhaps much more nuanced and fluid, subject to change as data and clinical experience changes. Curiously, it is this latter model, albeit using earlier methods of communication, that was the basis for the growth of scientific ideas and our interpretation of evidence about the world. It might be worth revisiting. Here

Clinical skills

by reestheskin on 19/02/2014

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“What of attempts to improve skin cancer diagnostic skills in primary care, or to develop GP specialists as seen in Australia or the UK? There are various points to make here, and perhaps a lot of wishful thinking about how the problem could be solved if only ‘GPs’ knew more about this or that subdomain of medical knowledge. In truth, such blandishments, must be frustrating to many GPs: there are only so many hours in the day. There are studies showing that it is possible to improve diagnostic skills over the short term following organised tuition (cited in Rees (16)). To find anything else would of course be surprising: if we expose intelligent people to formal tuition or learning, we expect short-term performance to improve. But, the critical point is whether this improvement is maintained, and what aspects of performance suffer because they have been replaced by training in another domain (16). There is no free lunch. If we run a course on skin cancer, then the rheumatologists, cardiologists etc. will all want to run courses. And much of what we know about such one off tuition is that in the absence of consolidation and feedback, the benefits are short lived only. How many of us remember all the history and geography we learned at school?” Here.