What medical researchers mean when they say ____

Just because a scientific paper sounds authoritative, it doesn’t mean we should always take what’s published in journals as gospel. For example, here’s what scientists might really mean when they pontificate:

“It has long been known” . . . [I didn’t look up the original reference]

“A definite trend is evident” . . . [These data are practically meaningless]

“Of great theoretical and practical importance” . . . [Interesting to me]   Continue reading

Can statin drugs really save your life?

When I was hospitalized after my heart attack, cardiologists immediately prescribed Lipitor, a statin drug which happens to be the biggest-selling drug on earth, made by Pfizer, which happens to be the biggest drug company on earth. My LDL (bad) cholesterol numbers went from 4.1 while still in the Coronary Care Unit down to 1.9 a few short weeks later.

(These are Canadian readings, by the way: to convert from Canadian to American readings, just multiply by 40). That’s quite a spectacular result for lowering one’s LDL cholesterol levels – but the question remains: do I really need to take this powerful cholesterol drug every day for the rest of my life?

Dr. Mark Ebell, a professor at the University of Georgia and deputy editor of the journal American Family Physician, says:

“High-risk groups have a lot to gain. But patients at low risk benefit very little if at all. We end up over-treating a lot of patients.”

Continue reading

Dr. Ben Goldacre’s rapid-fire story of the ‘Nocebo Effect’

You know, of course, about the placebo effect, in which patients report positive results from taking a mere sugar pill.  Turns out there is also something called a nocebo effect, too.  This is defined as a negative placebo effect. It happens, for example, when patients take medications and actually experience adverse side effects unrelated to any specific pharmacological action of the drug. The nocebo effect is associated with a person’s prior expectations of adverse effects from the treatment. In other words, if we expect a treatment to hurt us, cause harm, or make us feel sick – it likely will.

The U.K.’s bright and brainy Dr. Ben Goldacre of Bad Science describes this phenomenon in this short but entertaining presentation from last year’s irreverent Nerdstock tour (“Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People).   Continue reading