“New Drugs Cut Heart Risks by One Percentage Point: Study”
That”s the headline I didn”t see from any stories yesterday about two new cholesterol drug studies presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting.
While it might sound like something out of The Onion, this would actually be an accurate way — I would argue, the most accurate way — to characterize the effect that these drugs had an on the cardiovascular risk of study participants.
In one of the studies, patients taking the experimental drug evolocumab had about a 1% risk of cardiovascular events compared with 2.2% in the control group — for a 1.2% reduction. The difference was slightly larger — 1.6% — for patients taking the second drug, alirocumab.
Many of the stories about these drugs, called PCSK9 Inhibitors, had these absolute risk reductions buried deep within the body of their text. But the main thrust of most stories was on the eye-popping relative risk reductions.
Consider Bloomberg’s headline trumpeting the potential for these drugs to ““Cut Heart Risks in Half.””
Similarly, Reuters led with news of a “signal” that the drugs “can reduce by half the risk of heart attack and other major cardiovascular problems compared to standard treatment alone.”
CBS headlined the results a “”breakthrough”” and suggested that the studies “boost hope” that these drugs “can greatly lower the risk for heart attacks, death and other heart-related problems.”
Sure, the drugs did “halve” the risk of cardiovascular problems, but going from 2% to 1% isn”t what your typical reader is picturing when they hear a claim like that.
Then again, studies show that many people seem to have an exaggerated perception of how much they benefit from health interventions. And the use of relative risk figures has been identified as an important factor contributing to that misperception.
Look, I hate to be the guy to call the cops on the PCSK9 party, but the celebration was premature to begin with.
These studies were designed to look at safety and the cholesterol-lowering effect of these drugs — not whether the drugs prevent heart attacks.
And it looks like we’ve got plenty to keep us busy on the safety front before we prematurely start promoting benefits.
The study authors themselves noted in one of the papers that “the number of cardiovascular events was relatively small, which limits the robustness of these data and the confidence that they are not simply a chance finding.”
We”ll know soon enough whether these drugs provide meaningful benefits to patients from large outcomes studies that are already underway.
In the meantime, let’s put a moratorium on overblown statistics that are more marketing than they are useful information.
Follow us on Twitter: