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July 31, 2017

Medicine in the media: stories about studies are creating chaos

By GBI Research

The varying result of medical studies results can make catchy headlines.

For any given topic of scientific inquiry, the pharmaceutical industry may conduct hundreds of studies, and, because of this, some variance in results can occur.

With an estimated 1m statin prescriptions given each week, there is a controversial front page story on their use almost as often.

The Daily Mail, the UK’s most popular tabloid, is a serial offender.

The newspaper, citing expert opinions and scientific studies, published an article in November last year suggesting that the expert consensus is that statins are a waste of time and fail to reduce the risk of heart disease.

It published another negative article on statins in April this year, suggesting that their side-effects outweight the benefits.

Just a few months later, on 28 July, the newspaper posted a story outlining the potential for statins to help 2.5m people with kidney disease, owing to their efficacy in treating high cholesterol and heart disease.

The difference between the negative and positive articles was that the findings in the latter were backed by Nice, an independent public body that provides guidance on health and social care.

Nice reaches its decisions after considering all relevant research and scientific data, using research techniques such as meta-analysis, and appraising research designs to check for flaws that may bias results.

The articles describing statins as a “waste of time” relied on weaker evidence, gained from a single study and the opinion of experts, rather than tried-and-tested research methodologies.

The public effect

Using a drug as it’s prescribed is important and if those that need it question its effectiveness or even doubt its safety.

With the public understandably uncertain about which stories to believe the drug is more likely to not take it correctly and we can see this happening in the past.

Following the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination controversy, a qualitative study found that parents were unsure who to trust regarding health information, with perceptions that politicians and doctors were untrustworthy.

To improve how news is conveyed, the pharmaceutical industry needs to rely more on specific information, such as that gained from regulatory bodies and meta-analysis results.

This means giving less coverage to controversial single studies until a census has been formed or the study has been replicated a number of times with a degree of similarity in the results.

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