Can statins prevent my head from exploding?

I’m exhausted. My hair hurts. My head’s about to explode, singed by the firestorm of media coverage about new cardiovascular disease treatment guidelines – specifically, the newly-expanded recommendations to prescribe the cholesterol drugs called statins to just about every middle-aged person who still has a detectable pulse.

Five years ago, I was told by my cardiologist that, as a freshly-diagnosed heart attack survivor, I was most definitely in the right demographic to benefit from taking a statin every day for the rest of my natural life (along with a fistful of other cardiac meds).  Statins, he explained, would help prevent another heart attack by controlling my specific target levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, commonly known as LDL, or ‘bad cholesterol’.  Lots of studies (at least, those paid for by the folks who make statins) seemed to indicate that lower LDL numbers would decrease both my risk of suffering a future cardiac event as well as death.

But now, these new treatment guidelines are essentially telling us and our doctors not to obsess at all on those target LDL numbers in favour of expanding the pool of potential statin-users out there.

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What we can learn about medicine from watching Grey’s Anatomy

When the popular TV hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy featured a story line about a patient diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called von Hippel-Lindau disease (VHL), Joyce Graff paid close attention. The Executive Director of the VHL Family Alliance watched as the surgeon onscreen discovers a large cyst on the patient’s pancreas, described as being in danger of rupturing”. Joyce described the scene:

“The TV surgeon removes a significant portion of the pancreas. But pancreatic cysts in VHL are almost never dangerous, and are not sufficient to warrant operating on the pancreas, which is the last organ you want to touch. Dr. Steven Libutti, one of the world’s experts in VHL in the pancreas, says he has NEVER seen a VHL associated pancreatic cyst in danger of rupturing, and described this scene as pure fiction.”

The potential inaccuracy of medical information presented on widely-watched hospital dramas (about 20 million viewers watch Grey’s Anatomy every week, for example) is a concern to Joyce – and should be to all of us.  But how much educational impact does a weekly visit to the fictional hospitals of Grey’s Anatomy or House or E.R. actually have on the average viewer?  And couldn’t we take advantage of our favourite TV docs to help raise awareness of serious real-life health issues? Continue reading