Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have found that more than 200,000 people interrupted their statin treatment over a six-month period following the controversy surrounding the cholesterol-lowering drug.
The research team has studied the impact of mainstream media health coverage around statins – commonly prescribed to people with type 2 diabetes, prediabetes and metabolic syndrome – on the behaviour of patients and doctors.
The study, conducted by the Picker Institute on behalf of the British Heart Foundatio, examined UK prescribing data of people aged 40 and over who started taking statins each month from January 2011 to March 2015 and looked to see whether the period of public debate who preceded this time frame affected patients’ adherence to treatment.
Study author Professor Liam Smeeth and his colleagues reviewed conflicting scientific literature documenting the effects and effectiveness of statin drugs which constituted the core of the debate.
Two articles published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ) in October 2013 first questioned the value of extending the use of statins to relatively healthy people at low risk of heart disease. The following month, leading medical academic Professor Sir Rory Collins vehemently criticised the articles published in The BMJ.
The, in February 2014, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) drafted new guidelines suggesting that a larger proportion of the population should be prescribed statins in order to prevent cases of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.
The study findings showed that, among patients who were taking the drug because they were deemed to be at high risk of developing heart disease in the next ten years, there was a 12 per cent increased likelihood of stopping statins in the six-months window following the period of public scrutiny.
Patients who were taking statins for existing heart disease were 11 per cent more likely to stop during that period of time.
The study, which has been published in the BMJ, also estimated that this figure equates to 219,000 people who discontinued their statin treatment, which could lead to a worrying 2,000 extra cardiovascular events over the next 10 years.
This suggests that the widespread coverage of statin-related health stories by a journal like the BMJ – which has made it no secret that it does not support the medicalisation of the normal population when it comes to statins and other drugs – may have significant consequences for people’s health.
For Dr Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the BMJ, however, it seems absolutely right that there is public debate about the benefits and harms of any treatment.
Godlee added: “Patients may now be better aware of several things. First, that we have far less good information on the side effects of statins than on their benefits. Secondly, that for some people, especially those at lower risk of heart disease, the survival benefit from statins may not outweigh the negatives of taking a drug every day with all that this entails. And finally that the complete trial data on statins are not available for independent scrutiny, which should shock people”.

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