Patients are deceived by slick statistics

Patients are deceived by the slick presentation of statisticsMichael Kirsch, MD | Physician | July 15, 2016

This article explains how drug companies use statistics to fool us into believing their products are effective.

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

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.

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 patient receives either Profitsoar or a placebo at random. Here are the results.

  • 1000 Profitsoar patients: 4 heart attacks
  • 1000 placebo Patients: 6 heart attacks

As is evident, only two 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 percent, which would lure many patients, and a few doctors to drink the Kool-Aid.

Doctors are subject to the same psychological manipulations as patients, so it seems very likely that drug promotions work on them as well.

Doctors don’t have time to look into the fine print or track down other materials that are not drug company-sponsored to search for these statistical manipulations.

Check out this promotional piece below which was recently mailed to me about Uceris, a steroid that I use at times for colitis patients.

See how low the actual remission rates are for the drug. Only 18 percent of patients responded to the drug, a small minority, and the placebo rate was 6 percent.

No worries. Just brag that Uceris is three times more effective than placebo!

Is this a lie? Not exactly. Is it the truth? Technically, yes.

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.

The next time you see a TV ad for a medication, which will be about 5 minutes after you turn on the TV, see if you can spot the illusion. You’ll have to watch quickly and repeatedly. Like all skilled magicians, these guys are expert at distraction and sleight of hand.

Hint: Whenever you hear the word “percent,” as in “35 percent of patients responded,” you should pay particular attention.

Author: Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.

3 thoughts on “Patients are deceived by slick statistics

  1. leejcaroll

    I just saw a doc dont want to be more specific and we talked about studies on a specific surgical procedure. To my surprise he told me articles showed it had good outcomes but you cant always trust even these peer reviewed articles as some of the docs just write wat they know will get published. He is going to, he told me, call the author to verify his findings. I was astounded that a doc would say this. My understanding had always been peer reviewed meant you could have faith in it. I am hoping it was my doc grandstanding and not the author

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      It seems like your doctor is making an effort to get facts straight from the source, which is commendable. Do you think he’d do this for other treatments, or just in the car of this particular procedure?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. leejcaroll

    This is kind of unusual situation I have had numerous neurosurgs and the last one was 100% experimental so I think it may be more specific to my situation. Hopefully he does it for others too.

    Liked by 1 person


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