This brief broadcast item on an evening television news program is about a potential link between statin use and lower risk of cancer. But the journal article upon which this item is based is not relevant to, and in fact can easily mislead, the mainstream audience of network television news.
The study is a retrospective cohort analysis–it analyzes data previously gathered about groups of patients. This type of study is used to explore hypotheses that need to be tested with a different study design before any claims about cause and effect can be made. The published article itself acknowledges this plainly. The broadcast does not.
It should be pointed out that the study itself is a valuable contribution to the continuing study of statin/cancer links. It appears to be the first to test the hypothesis of a possible reduced risk with an older population more likely to get cancer during the study period, and for a wide variety of cancers. The study is good; the implication that its findings are important to consumers is the problem.
The item is so brief that it does not include the essential caveat about the study type. Nor does it mention other limitations: the relatively homogeneous study group (mostly white male veterans), the fact that the study could not control for levels of smoking or alcohol; or that the absolute risk of any member of the group getting cancer during the study period was fairly high–9 percent.
It is worth noting that the ABC News website did provide a more balanced report of these findings http://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory?id=4104417. At the very least this broadcast should have referred viewers to this for more information.
The airing of a broadcast item like this raises two key questions:
Is the story worth reporting?
Airing the story at all invites an inference that it’s important to viewers–that it establishes a cause and effect link between taking statins and lower cancer risk. Given the limitations of the study, this is an excessive inference. Reporters and producers should think carefully about the risks and benefits of reporting such a story at all.
Can any piece of health news be responsibly conveyed in around 50 words, or less than 30 seconds?
Personal health decisions are very important, particularly when they involve the two leading causes of death–heart disease and cancer–and a very common drug. If the news cannot be delivered with enough context and detail to help people understand its implications, it should not be broadcast.
Consumers justifiably complain that reports on medical studies contradict each other and make it hard to figure out what to do. This type of broadcast–too brief, and about a study that doesn’t have implications for treatment–demonstrates a key source of the problem.
The story does not mention statin costs.
The segment says only that the risk of cancer was as much as 25 percent lower in the statin group. It doesn’t specify which cancers, or what the absolute risk of getting any of the studied cancers was.
The segment does not mention the risks of statins, which are rare but potentially serious.
The journal article reported on a retrospective cohort study, a type that can at best suggest an association. Additional prospective, controlled and randomized clinical trials would be needed to verify the hypothesis that taking statins cuts cancer risk.
The broadcast does not exaggerate the risks or consequences of cancer.
It does, however, exaggerate the value of statins–a separate issue from disease mongering, but a serious related flaw.
The broadcast cites, and shows on screen as a source, the National Cancer Institute.
That is incorrect. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute has no relationship with the U.S. NCI. NCI played no role in funding this study.
The broadcast does not offer any treatment options for reducing risk of heart disease or stroke. More importantly, it does not mention alternative for early detection of or reduced risk for cancer, a critical public health issue.
Statins are widely available, and the story briefly implies familiarity. The broadcast should have indicated that the drugs are not routinely used for the purpose of reducing cancer risk.
The segment makes no claims that statins are novel.
There was no press release associated with this publication.