Columns 31.7.2013 12:40 pm

Profit’s little helpers

What do you do when you get sick? Personally I ignore it as much as possible. My motto has always been that one shouldn’t go the doctor unless one can’t see, can’t breathe, can’t stop the bleeding, can’t stand the pain or one finds a suspicious lump.

With healthcare costs being so unconscionably high who can afford to bother an MD with every sneeze or sniffle?

It should surprise no one to learn that money causes quite a few problems both in medicine and in the medical research upon which it relies. But the major problem is that those who have enough money can make research seem to say almost anything.

In general the aim of medical research is to figure out whether a certain treatment’s benefits outweigh its weaknesses, side-effects and so on. To do this the researchers give the treatment to a random group of people and wait to see if what happens is generally good or generally bad.

But in all research there is an element of luck. Perhaps your participants are unusually healthy. Perhaps a few of the people happen to be taking some other medication that interacts with a drug you are testing. Maybe your study starts in Spring when allergies flair up, and stops in summer, when they quiet down again: on paper this effect might seem like a result of your drug.

So what some drug companies do is as follows. They commission dozens, sometimes hundreds, of studies that each test a different facet of a drug with a different combination of people, but they only tell you about the studies that make their products look good.

It’s similar to the trick magician Derren Brown used to flip a coin and get heads 10 times in a row. What happened was that he flipped a coin over and over again, for hours. But he only showed a clip in which he actually got the trick right.

But Brown is a magician. He’s supposed to trick us.

Researchers for “big pharma” do the same thing. They carry out hundreds of trials of their drugs and when a trial seems to have good news they publish it with much fanfare. They take out ads on TV that say things like “studies have shown” and “research proves”. We’ve all seen plenty of ads like that.

When the results of a study come back and they suggest that a new medicine is flawed in some way the companies bury it.

They keep the data in a vault in case they need it for something later but in general unfavourable studies never see the light of day.

Does this mean that all medicine is bad? Well, no, most of it is good. But what it does mean is that vital information about side-effects and drug interactions is being hidden from researchers who desperately need it in order to know which drugs are right for which people.

And until that data becomes available to independent researchers, medicine will remain deeply flawed.

 

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