Health News Review

We’re seeing a lot of stories botch the reporting of the Danish study showing a statistical association between statin use and fewer deaths from cancer.  The emphasis we added is deliberate and important.  That’s all it showed.

At Reuters Health, Gene Emery got it right.  Excerpts:

  • “Danish cancer patients taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs were 15 percent less likely to die…”
  • “The study… did not look at whether the statins…can prevent cancer – only at what happens once cancer is diagnosed.”
  • “the appearance of a benefit…”
  • “a seeming benefit…”
  • “But there is cause for skepticism. The people who took less than the recommended dose of a statin had a higher rate of survival than cancer patients who took higher doses. A positive relationship between dose and response is usually seen as evidence, at least, of cause and effect.”The absence of a dose trend might indicate that just some statin might be enough,” Bojesen said. “But this is just an observational study, so the exact dose and the exact mechanism is something we can’t clarify with this paper.”
  • “Because this study was an observational study, the slightly lower cancer death rates among cancer patients who had used statins before their cancer diagnosis could have been caused by factors other than the statin itself,” Jacobs told Reuters Health. “People using statins may have been more likely to use aspirin, which has been linked with improved cancer survival in some recent studies.”

There should be little doubt in the minds of readers of the Reuters Health story that cause-and-effect was not established in this study.

The headlines of these stories generated by a Google search are misleadingly inaccurate because of how they emphasize cause-and-effect – “help fight cancer…lower risk of dying…cut mortality…can extend lives”.

Why does this matter?  Is this just an academic pursuit?  Just nit-picking wordsmithing?

It matters because it’s wrong.  It’s inaccurate.  Accuracy is a journalistic principle.

It matters because it misleads readers.

It matters because many experts already believe we’re over-prescribing statins and we shouldn’t ascribe “benefits” that haven’t been established, leading to even more potential over-prescribing.

We just had a national election that didn’t dwell enough on health care costs.  We need to do a better job educating the public – not whipping the worried well into a frenzy over unproven ideas.

Comments

John Lynch posted on November 8, 2012 at 10:45 am

“Accuracy is a journalistic principle” that’s increasingly under siege as more media outlets substitute corporate-sponsored “reporting” on their research and business developments as objective news coverage. The reasons are both financial and political (i.e., the presence of corporate sponsor types or allies on media boards). I wrote a chapter on this in my eBook on Obamacare, available here – http://bit.ly/OzGVkF

Donald Hackett posted on November 9, 2012 at 8:28 am

Gary and team:

We wanted to thank you for including dailyRx News’ recent story “Statins May Lower Risk of Dying From Cancer” in your recent review of the news stories associated with the recent NEJM article.

While we were not on the positive side of your review this time, we greatly value the efforts of Health News Review, and consider the organization an essential and necessary part of health journalism. We will continue to endeavor to meet HNR’s ten criteria for responsible health journalism.
Don

Joseph Madia posted on November 9, 2012 at 8:32 am

Mr. Schwitzer,
We wanted to thank you for including dailyRx News’ recent story “Statins May Lower Risk of Dying From Cancer” in your recent review of the news stories associated with the recent NEJM article.

While we were not on the positive side of your review this time, we greatly value the efforts of Health News Review, and consider the organization an essential and necessary part of health journalism. We will continue to endeavor to meet HNR’s ten criteria for responsible health journalism.

Sincerely,
Donald Hacket, CEO, Patient Conversation Media, Inc
Sean Brindley, Executive Producer, Patient Conversation Media, Inc
Joseph V. Madia, MD, Medical Editor

    Gary Schwitzer posted on November 9, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Thank you for your note and for your open-minded acceptance of our critique.

    Sincerely,

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher

    Viridiana posted on December 7, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Breast cancer is definitely not a one-size-fits-all disease, nor is the breast cancer therapy plan that accompanies it. Patients should be treated as individuals and have their treatments planned tailored as such.

Ed Dwulet posted on November 10, 2012 at 1:22 am

Its great to hear a voice of reason among all this headlined misinformation insanity. This study is just another example of statistical game playing by the pill
pushing drug manufacturers and their discredited paid advertising medium
the NEJM to find new customers for their useless drugs. Most statin
users are men — most elderly men entrapped in the medical industrial
complex deep enough to be taking statins will eventually find themselves
needlessly diagnosed with a prostate cancer diagnoses which will not
kill them. Lumping PC patients with other “cancer” patients in this
statistical game will certainly bias the results of this study in favor
of “survival” for those taking statins. Total baloney! It should never
have seen the light of day let alone be given widespread credence by the
NEJM. Remove PC patients from this data and its very likely that the
survival advantage disappears or possibly turns negative.