We always cheer when we see a story take the rare step of spelling out the costs of a treatment as clearly as this one did. We also love the use of hard numbers in talking about the potential benefits of wider statin use and the space devoted to risks, especially in a short story. The NBC coverage was focused on a cost-effectiveness study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A competing story in the New York Times brought in another study, also focused on the new statin guidelines, and used the occasion to do something that this story didn’t quite accomplish: provide a detailed explanation of the quality of the evidence supporting wider statin use.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the USA. The percentage of adults who might be recommended for statins is quite high, and so the costs and effectiveness of these drugs are vitally important to understand both at an individual level and across the population.
While the New York Times skipped the cost question, NBC gave readers the numbers they needed to know. It said that “Statins, which include Lipitor, Mevacor, Crestor and Zocor, are extremely popular. They’re prescribed to about 15 percent of U.S. adults, at a cost ranging from about $4 a month for the cheapest generic version to $600 for a pricey name-brand.” That’s a huge cost range and, multiplied out for the millions more Americans who are being encouraged to take statins, represents a significant potential increase in health care spending. To inform readers even more fully, the story could have looked at what those global costs would add up to for the entire country. It also could have explained what researchers mean when they say that the drugs are “worth it” and how the value of treatment was calculated in the study.
The story did quantify benefits using absolute numbers when describing the potential impact on heart attacks from wider statin use. The story said that “if even more people were given statins — if they were given to people with a 3 percent risk of developing heart disease over 10 years — another 160,000 heart attacks and strokes would be prevented, they estimated.” We thought the Times, though, did a better job overall providing context for those numbers.
NBC did a better job than the Times in answering the question about risks. NBC wrote that statins “can damage muscle in 5 to 15 percent of patients. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration updated labeling on statins to include warnings about confusion and memory loss, elevated blood sugar leading to Type 2 diabetes, and muscle weakness.” This is a nice addition to the overall coverage of the new statin studies and a step we wish more reporters had taken.
Other than noting that the study was published in a journal, there is no examination of the quality of the evidence. The Times did a better job in this regard, mentioning that the study wasn’t a clinical trial and that the prospective Framingham cohort is almost all white.
There is no disease mongering in the story.
We were surprised that there were no independent sources quoted in the story. There are a lot of people talking about these studies, and the Times did a better job seeking out independent analysis.
The story did not address alternatives to statin treatment such as diet and exercise.
The story made it clear that statins are widely available. They are also paid for by insurance plans.
The story mentions that the new report addresses concerns about guidelines issued in 2013, so in that sense it provides enough context for a Satisfactory rating. But we’d note that the story gives the impression that this study’s findings are the definitive word on whether otherwise healthy people should start taking statins. But, as the competing New York Times story notes, there is still serious debate about how important these new findings are.
The story does not rely excessively on a news release.