What reporters need to know about side effects and drug studies

Recently, Dr. Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre), a prominent critic of drug studies, wanted to find out how often side effects reported by users of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins were genuinely caused by the medications.

The study he co-authored concluded that most reported side effects of statins aren’t often due to the drugs themselves, but to other causes. The study generated front-page headlines in the U.K., with an article in The Telegraph declaring, “Statins have virtually no side effects, study finds.”

Outcry ensued. Patients who experienced side effects on statins begged to differ, and Goldacre’s fans wondered if he had suddenly gone soft on pharmaceutical companies.

In response, Goldacre penned a nuanced explanation of the study findings, explaining* that its conclusions were flawed because it was based on incomplete data.

The statin study controversy aside, his blog post makes some key points about how side effects are reported in medical journals that are helpful for health reporters to keep in mind when covering the downsides of new drugs. I’ve boiled some important points down and included them in this tip sheet for AHCJ members.

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post used the word “admitting.”

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