More than 60,000 people have reduced or discontinued their use of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs after watching ABC’s TV program, Catalyst, which questioned their benefits for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, claims a University of Sydney study published in the latest Medical Journal of Australia.
The University of Sydney studied PBS medication records of more than 190,000 people which found that after the show was aired in October 2013, there was a fall in the number of people dispensed statins.
“In the eight months following the Catalyst broadcast, an estimated 60,897 fewer people filled their statins prescriptions. If patients continue to avoid statins over the next five years, this could result in between 1,522 and 2,900 preventable, and potentially fatal, heart attacks and strokes,” the authors report.
Following the broadcasts, health experts, including ABC presenter Dr Norman Swan, were highly critical of the program for misrepresenting scientific evidence and scaring people away from prescribed medications.
The ABC subsequently removed the episodes from the Catalyst website after an internal review found that the episodes on statins had breached its impartiality standards.
The lead author, Andrea Schaffer from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Pharmacy, says: “The impact of the program was not only immediate, but long-lasting. Statin dispensings were significantly lower than expected for the entire 8-month post-broadcast period we examined. It is unclear how long this change will last.
“What is particularly concerning is that this drop in statin use was seen in people who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, those who were also taking medications for diabetes,” says Associate Professor Sallie Pearson, senior author on the study.
The authors of the study said that even though the observed effect was relatively small, the prevalence of statin use in Australia, and their established efficacy means that a large number of people are affected, and may suffer unnecessary consequences.
Prior to the airing of the Catalyst episode on statins, ANU Professor Emily Banks, a co-author of the new MJA study, raised concerns that the program could have adverse health impacts.
NPS MedicineWise also highlighted the importance of reliable information on medicines for health professionals and consumers.
“At the time the Catalyst program went to air, we expressed concern that people prescribed statins may stop taking their medicine without talking to a health professional,” says NPS MedicineWise CEO, Dr Lynn Weekes. “In light of the findings of this study, we would like to re-emphasise how important it is to have a conversation with your doctor before making decisions about your prescription medicines.”
The Consumers Health Forum CEO, Leanne Wells, says: “This study highlights the hazards for consumers of accepting media stories on medicine and applying them unquestioningly to their own healthcare.
“It is a timely warning to the very many people who may depend on the internet and the mass media to guide their medical care. The statins story was particularly problematic because of the millions of Australians who need to take this medication daily. As we said at the time, patients should consult their doctor before stopping their medication.
“Consumers need balanced information about medicines and their health,” says Wells.