Medical Statistics – The Art of Deception

Medical Statistics – The Art of Deception

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”   

There is much truth in this quotation of uncertain provenance. We see this phenomenon regularly in the medical profession. We see it in medical journals when statistics are presented in a manner that exaggerates the benefit of a treatment or a diagnostic test.  

Massaging numbers is raised to an art form by the pharmaceutical companies who will engage in numerical gymnastics to shine a favorable light on their product.    

It’s massaging, not outright mendacity.  The promotional material that pharmaceutical representatives present to doctors is riddled with soft deception.

A favorite from their bag of tricks is to rely upon relative value rather than absolute value.  Here’s how this works in this hypothetical example:

This is a devious trick that I’ve fallen for in the past. As the example clearly illustrates, it’s critical to understand the difference between relative value rather than absolute value, This is also how the addiction risk of opioids is grossly exaggerated.

A drug named Profitsoar is tested to determine if it can reduce the risk of a heart attack. Two thousand patients are participating in the study. Each patients receives either Profitsoar or a placebo at  random. Here are the results:

As is evident,  only 2 patients were spared a heart attack by the drug. This is a trivial benefit as only 6 of 1000 patients in the placebo group suffered a heart attack. This means that taking the drug provides no meaningful protection for an individual patient.

However, the drug companies will highlight the results in relative terms to package the results differently. They will claim that Profitsoar reduced heart attack rates by 33%, which would lure many patients, and a few doctors to drink the Kool Aid.

Most physicians are tuned into this deception.  I know from my own patients that the public is easily seduced by this slick presentation of data.  

MD Whistleblower presents vignettes and commentaries on the medical profession. We peek ‘behind the medical curtain’ and deliver candor and controversy in every post.

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