freelance journalist, print journalist, online journalist, copywriter, content editor, freelance editor, health and lifestyle, blogger Drug trials: are we being misled? | Christine Morgan - Journalist
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The drugs industry could be set for big changes if experts writing in the British Medical Journal get their way. The team of German researchers have quite rightly pointed out the unfairness of published studies of drug trials that conveniently leave out any negative findings. So basically, we the public, as well as most doctors who constantly have to make decisions on which drugs to prescribe for their patients, are being misled by the results of studies that are published in many journals because the researchers writing up the studies tend to pick and choose which results to write about. In other words, they only write about the positive results and leave out anything negative.

The German experts cite an example of a report that has done just that. Trial data for the drug reboxetine – an antidepressant used to treat moderate cases marketed as Edronax – failed to reveal the truth, they say. This all apparently came to light when US drug regulators said they were concerned about the drug’s effectiveness (by the way, in the US you have to publish all trial data, not just the positive stuff). This led the researchers from the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care to dig deeper into the trial’s findings – and that revealed information that suggests the drug is no more effective than a placebo. Yet Pfizer, which makes reboxetine, maintains the drug is effective.

The story report on the BBC’s website reminds us about several other well-publicised studies that also failed to report negative findings – GlaxoSmithKline’s failure to reveal the link between its antidepressant Seroxat and the increase in suicidal behaviour, for one. And, more recently, the same company’s diabetes drug, Avandia, came under scrutiny when it turned out it may increase your risk for heart disease – but GSK allegedly didn’t declare any such thing.

Goodness knows how many other drugs are out there in common usage that have ‘hidden’ negative risks… It just doesn’t bear thinking about. Riskfactorphobes, I apologise for bringing this to your attention, since you will probably worry yourselves sick about it. But at the risk of making things even worse,  here’s something else to worry about. How many of us actually read published medical studies? Well, I do from time to time. But mostly I get my information from medical journalists who have written about what the study says. If, however, it’s easy enough to ‘hide’ negative findings when writing up the study’s results, surely it’s even easier to ‘forget’ to mention inconvenient findings that get in the way of what you (or your editor) think makes a good story?

This, I’m afraid, also happens all the time. But who’s’ to blame? The journalists themselves for not reporting every single fact they can possibly glean from a published study, giving every fact equal prominence, no matter how minor? The editors for nudging the journalists in the direction they (and their media’s owners) feel is in their readers’ best intentions (and giving them so little space they couldn’t possibly cover all the facts anyway)? Or the authors of the studies who talk in such terms that you need an interpreter to get to the bottom of what exactly it is they’re trying to say in the first place?

Oh dear, I have gone on a bit, haven’t I? The bottom line, however, is that not everything in black and white is, er, black and white.

There again, if the public is allowed access to the full results of clinical trials – as the MHRA has suggested will happen in just over a year from now – things could well change. And for the better.