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Thursday, 10 September 2015

Is There Too Much Medical Research?

Just as there is an important (and often unhealthy) relationship between the Police and the Press, so too there is a relationship between medical research and the Press which strikes me as often unhelpful to “the general public”

In the UK, we have one newspaper – The Daily Express – which as a matter of editorial policy devotes all its front page stories to less than a dozen topics – the Weather, Migrants, Miracle Cures …  rotated on a basis which means that they all recur regularly. It assumes (correctly) that its elderly readership is unhealthy and full of health anxieties. So it feeds them stories of Miracle Cures for arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and death.  Today, however, it has an uncharacteristic scare story which several other newspapers have picked up on too: You Can Catch Alzheimer’s. An editorial misjudgement? No, not if the next story is an Alzheimer’s Cure.

Other newspapers with a more up-market readership also drip feed the results of medical research but perhaps with more emphasis on Life Style research. The trouble with these research findings is that many of them contradict each other. In addition, if you read the small print, the findings are rather less striking than a headline makes them appear. For example, suppose some medical research concludes that eating X or not doing Y (usually exercise) increases your chances of succumbing to something nasty (usually a cancer) by 10%. That’s alarming. Until you do the maths: in the course of their lives, 1 in 10 000 people overall will succumb to this particular Nasty. The chances for those who eat X or don’t do Y are 10% worse. That means (doing this as Amateur Statistics) that about 1 in 9000 of the higher risk group will succumb. True, they are 10% worse off. But their chances of getting this Nasty are really not dramatically different to everyone else's.

Over many years, I have fallen into habits and practices which reflect Things I Have Read in the Newspapers. I switched from white to brown bread, from red meat to chicken, from full cream to semi-skimmed, from butter to margarine and then back again (new research). I stopped taking milk in my tea (anti-oxidant benefits) and gave up ham and bacon and other things which are over-processed and carcinogenic. I never add salt to my food (blood pressure). I don’t really manage Five A Day but it’s a sort of Target. I have always been a moderate drinker ( hepatitis in my twenties secured that) but now I am even more moderate, kept going only by all that research on the benefits of red wine …

And so on. But the more I read in the papers, the more I wonder if there is just too much medical research and too much that is inconsequential. A lot of it consists in running statistical computer programs endlessly over past research findings. A lot of it consists in modest empirical studies which simply can’t control for enough variables. A lot of it, of course, is Drugs research and here the pharmaceutical companies are probably guilty of trumpeting minor improvements as major ones, possibly helpful new drugs as breakthroughs. 

There is a rather sinister industry devoted to producing very expensive drugs to prolong by a month or two the lives of people who are soon going to die. Some of these life-extending drugs make people feel more ill than they would without them.

At the same time as routine medical research churns out an endless stream of often inconsequential results, it seems that we have major problems with resistance to antibiotics and major problems in ensuring that hospitals are safe places to be. It is now almost assumed that hospital treatment involves catching something. How did this come about?

It would be nice if we could have our newspapers debating what kinds of medical research we, the patients, think would be worthwhile with medical researchers joining in to tell us how they arrive at their own priorities for research.

1 comment:

  1. The only thing worse than too much medical research is too little medical research.