Patients may have quit statins after media row

More than 200,000 UK patients may have stopped statin therapy in the six months after media coverage of the controversy over risks and benefits the drug class in late 2013, according to a study.

Authors of the British Medical Journal study said the results were observational and no firm conclusions could be drawn – but noted that the findings suggest that the widely reported row may have given “disproportional weight” to the minority view concerning the side effects of statins.

They said this change in patient behaviour could lead to over 2,000 extra cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes, if continued over the next 10 years.

These calculations are based on several assumptions and should be interpreted with caution, authors stressed.

But they said the findings highlight “the potential for widely covered health stories in the lay media to impact on healthcare related behaviour.”

Researchers found no evidence that widespread media coverage was linked to changes in the proportion of newly eligible patients starting statins.

The BMJ in October 2013 published two articles that questioned the value of extending the use of statins to healthy people at low risk of heart disease, and these were heavily criticised by some statins researchers, prompting widespread media debate about their potential risks and benefits.

Anthony Matthews at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and colleagues decided to measure how this period of intense public debate (from October 2013 to March 2014) affected the likelihood of patients starting and stopping statins for both primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Patients already taking statins were more likely to stop taking them for both primary and secondary prevention after the high media coverage period, particularly older patients and those with a longer continuous prescription.

Study author, professor Liam Smeeth, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “It’s undoubtedly important that these debates are reflected in the media, who play a key role in communicating public health advice, but there is a concern that in the case of statins, widespread reporting of the debate may have given disproportionate weight to a minority view about possible side effects, denting public confidence in a drug which most scientists and health professionals believe to be a safe and effective option against heart disease for the vast majority of patients.”

In a linked editorial, Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, asked in an editorial article if it was a bad thing that news coverage alerted people to the debate, and uncertainty that still exists about the potential benefits and harms of using statins.

Dr Fiona Godlee, the BMJ’s editor in chief, said that patients are now aware that we have far less good information on the side effects of statins than on their benefits.

She added that they may be aware that for some people, especially those at low risk of heart disease, the survival benefit from statins may not outweigh the negatives of daily statin use.

Godlee added that the fact that complete trial data on statins are not available for independent scrutiny “should shock people.”

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