This story about an association between long-term statin use and a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis covers many of the bases, but it doesn’t do as good a job as the other story we reviewed at giving readers a sense of the preliminary nature of the research. While we applaud stories that include specific numbers, this one probably left many readers scratching their heads about what the numbers meant. For example, the story reported that “those not taking statins had a 51 percent higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis over about 80 percent of the follow-up period.” Huh? Many of the numbers quoted are provided without context and as a result provide little in the way of information. Giving readers an easier statistic, such as "number needed to treat" would have cut through the confusion and provided important context to the true impact of the study.
Like the other story we reviewed, this one fails to put the reported difference in rheumatoid arthritis rates in perspective. It reports the percentage reduction without telling readers the baseline risk for this population. Indeed, like the other story, it reports that among almost 2 million people included in the database analyzed by researchers just a couple of thousand people developed rheumatoid arthritis over the course of a decade. That is a rate of about one-tenth of one percent. While a “40 percent” reduction sounds big, it is impossible to tell from this story just how many people might be affected.
An association is not the same as an effect. News reports of research should be consistent and precise in the use of the terms in order to avoid creating an impression of a causal relationship when one has not been demonstrated.
There is no mention of costs in this story, either the direct costs of the drugs or the associated costs of testing and monitoring.
Although the story includes cautionary comments warning that this study does not prove that statins can prevent rheumatoid arthritis, throughout the story were comments about the “effect” of statins and the “reduction of rheumatoid arthritis risk,” thus creating a strong impression that statin use was responsible for the lower rate of rheumatoid arthritis, something this type of study cannot demonstrate.
The story also does not tell readers what the underlying risk of rheumatoid arthritis is, so it is impossible to put the “40 percent lower risk” into context. The story reports that the researchers looked at health data from almost 2 million people over a decade and that a total of about 2,500 new cases of rheumatoid arthritis were diagnosed. But it does not give readers what they need in order to get a good feel for how many people might be affected if further research demonstrated that statins could actually reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
This story does not mention any side effects of statins or other concerns about the long-term use of the drugs.
The story points out that this study was observational and that a controlled experiment would be needed to prove cause-and-effect. The story also includes comments that people should not take statins in order to reduce their risk of rheumatoid arthritis based merely on the findings reported by these researchers. However, readers have to stay with the story almost until the end in order to see the cautionary statements about the preliminary nature of the study conclusions.
The story does not resort to disease-mongering, but neither does it provide any information to the reader about the prevalence of the disorder or its impact on quality of life. The story would have been improved with a bit of background information about RA and its societal impact, The American College of Rheumatology estimates the prevalence of RA between 2 and 10.7 per 1,000 adults. While relatively uncommon, RA can be a devastating chronic illness. It would have been helpful to provide information on prevalence.
The story includes both an independent source and the information that the researchers did not receive any outside funding for their work.
The story provides no background information about rheumatoid arthritis, its prevention or its treatments. There are four known risk factors for RA; gender (women develop RA about twice as frequently as men), family history, age (most people with RA develop symptoms between age 40 and 50 years) and smoking. A complete story would have included a few words on other preventive approaches.
The story notes that statins are already used to prevent heart attacks and stroke.
While the story refers to earlier research on statins by the same group, it fails to mention other studies that specifically looked at any links between statin use and rates of rheumatoid arthritis, thus implying that this study may be the first one.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.