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Controversy, media coverage and statin use in the UK

28 June 2016  •  Author: Victoria White, Digital Content Producer

A period of controversy over the risks and benefits of statins, covered widely in the UK media, was followed by a temporary increase in the number of people stopping their statin treatment, finds a new study.

statin

Statins are widely recommended for the prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD). In October 2013, two articles were published in The BMJ 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 CVD.

Using prescribing data from UK primary care records, they calculated the number of people aged 40 and over starting and stopping statins each month from January 2011 to March 2015.

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.

200,000 patients may have stopped statin therapy

The researchers estimate that more than 200,000 patients across the UK may have stopped statin therapy in the six months after the media coverage – and that this could lead to over 2,000 extra cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes, if continued over the next 10 years. But they stress that these calculations are based on several assumptions and should be interpreted with caution.

Professor Liam Smeeth from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said: “Our findings suggest that widespread coverage of health stories in the mainstream media can have an important, real world impact on the behaviour of patients and doctors. This may have significant consequences for people’s health.

“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.”

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