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Nailing a story

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Often I criticize health news coverage in this blog. Today, I praise a reporter for nailing a story.

Andre Picard of the Toronto Globe and Mail hit a home run with his story, “Be Skeptical About the Herceptin Hype.”

Herceptin is a drug intended for certain types of breast cancer. Picard writes:

“The most eye-popping claim is that, for this select group, the drug cuts the risk of recurrence by half. In clinical trials, women who took Herceptin along with a standard chemotherapy drug saw their risk of recurrence fall 52 per cent, compared to women who received chemo alone. That is an impressive relative risk reduction.

But what matters in the real world is absolute (not relative) risk reduction. Practically speaking, 15 per cent of women taking Herceptin and chemo had a recurrence of breast cancer within four years of diagnosis, compared to 33 per cent of women who took chemo alone. That is an absolute risk reduction of 18 per cent.

Nobody wants a recurrence, but what matters ultimately is survival. Herceptin, according to the studies, cut the death rate by one-third. That sounds impressive, but relative risk reductions always do. In reality, the difference in the death rate between the Herceptin and non-Herceptin groups was 2 per cent after three years, and 4 per cent after four years.

Based on those numbers, can we honestly say that Herceptin is an essential lifesaving drug?”

If more reporters knew the difference between relative and absolute risk, and reported the difference, we’d have a lot less hype in health news coverage.

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