Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why you should never believe medical stories in the media, number 3,769,874 in a series

The media was full of yet another wonder medicine that can be prescribed to healthy people yesterday. This from the Guardian:

Healthy people who take a cheap five-in-one combination "polypill" of aspirin and cholesterol and blood pressure-­lowering drugs, could slash heart disease and strokes by half, the authors of a study presented yesterday say.

Er, sure. Let's skip the blurb from the people trying to sell the drug and boost their reputations, and look for a story from someone who actually troubled themselves to find out what the study involved. Here's one:

The study involved about 2,000 people at 50 centers across India, average age 54, with at least one risk factor for heart diseasehigh blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes or smoking.

Four hundred were given the polypill. The rest were placed in eight groups of 200 and given individual components of the pill or various combinations. Treatment lasted 12 weeks.

Now we're getting somewhere. What we're actually talking about is a study involving 400 people studied for 12 weeks. The figures being touted for reduction in heart attack risk are based on extrapolating from the results of similarly useful studies. The great news about the lack of side effects should carry the important rider "well, not within the first 12 weeks, anyway."

Basically, all these stories are about expanding the market for medicines to include healthy people, with a fairly obvious motive. I'm surprised the Guardian is so easily sucked in by it.

MacDoctor's also written a useful post on this - well worth a look.

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