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CBS totally misses the point of study on statins

It’s not uncommon for me to wake up (in the Central time zone, where I live) and have a message from someone in the Eastern time zone already waiting for me, asking when I’m going to comment on some news story.

Today was one of those days.  The messenger was Charlie Ornstein of ProPublica, who’s also president of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Before 9 a.m. Central time today, he tweeted:

“Paging @garyschwitzer:  @CBSHealth: New wonder drug? Statins may have use beyond cholesterol.”

I had a busy morning so I’m only getting around to this now.

The CBS report was a live in-studio chit-chat with Dr. Holly Phillips, a “CBS News medical contributor.”

[2017 Update: This CBS video is no longer available]

On the CBS website, the headline was: New wonder drug? Statins may have use beyond cholesterol.”   A few quick observations:

  1. That “may have” projection about statins is not new.  Drugmakers are in the business of constantly searching for new uses for old drugs.
  2. And yes, statins are old drugs.  So why did the online and on-air stories refer to them as “new wonder drugs”?
  3. Finally, the story was about a study.  The study only looked at statin harms/safety.  It didn’t look at benefits.  It didn’t even mention Alzheimer’s disease.  So, with no analysis of benefits, why did the online and on-air stories refer to them as “new wonder drugs”? And in the freeze-frame image from CBS, above, you’ll see that the subheadline is “THE BENEFITS OF STATINS.” That’s NOT what the study was about!

Dr. Phillips said:

“In addition to lowering cholesterol, statins lower inflammation in the body, particularly in the blood vessels,” said Phillips. “Inflammation is linked to a number of other diseases: Alzheimer’s disease, a number of forms of cancer, strokes. So by lowering that, we could theoretically lower many of these diseases.”

That’s a mighty big if.  And that’s NOT what the study in question was about.

So what was the story all about?

  • If it was about the study, it missed the mark, going way outside the boundaries of what was reported in the study.
  • If it was an attempt to promote statin use, it was journalistically unsound.  The anchorman even asked Dr. Philipps what advice she gives her patients about statins.  You know what?  I don’t care what advice she gives her patients, and I don’t think CBS viewers should either. At that moment, she’s on the air as a journalist.  She shouldn’t be put in the position – or allow herself to be put in the position – of dispensing medical advice in this setting.
  • Finally, even in reporting on the supposed safety of statins, it’s important to clarify and delineate the population you’re talking about.  If you’re talking about using powerful drugs in healthy people for preventive reasons, you better be real clear about that.  And this study’s analysis of the statins-and-diabetes link is worth noting in that context.  But there are other safety concerns for statins in the primary prevention context as well.

So, there you go, Charlie.  Probably predictable.  But so was the CBS story. And so are many health care stories by leading US news media:

  • Of the almost 1,900 stories we’ve reviewed in the past 7+ years, two-thirds fail to adequately quantify the potential benefits of the interventions they report on.

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