Health

TEDWeekends explores the truth about medical studies

Posted by: Shirin Samimi-Moore
Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

At TEDMED 2012, Ben Goldacre shared a startling reality: that doctors are not able to read all the studies conducted on a pharmaceutical before prescribing it to their patients. Ben Goldacre: What doctors don't know about the drugs they prescribeBen Goldacre: What doctors don't know about the drugs they prescribeThis is because of a bias in medical research toward positive results – while one study confirming a drug’s effectiveness may be published, the results of other studies may simply be unavailable. Goldacre warns that about half of all drug trial result are buried – and this is across all medical fields – and thus doctors are left hugely uninformed even as they reach for their prescription pads.

This week’s TED Weekends on the Huffington Post explores Ben Goldacre’s talk on the truth about medical research. Below, find a selection of essays to pique your interest:

Ben Goldacre: We Need to See Pharma’s Failures

TED can sometimes portray science in triumphalist tones, with fabulous innovations that are changing the world forever. But the real action in science is often around dirty, messy, angry problems, and my TED Talk is about the dirtiest I’ve seen yet.

Doctors need the results of clinical trials to make informed choices, with their patients, about which treatment to use. But the best currently available evidence estimates that half of all clinical trials, for the treatments we use today, have never been published. This problem is the same for industry-sponsored trials and independent academic studies, across all fields of medicine from surgery to oncology, and it represents an enormous hidden hole for everything we do. Doctors can’t make informed decisions, when half the evidence is missing. Read the full essay »

Wray Herbert: Is the Placebo Effect Dangerous?

Physician and medical gadfly Ben Goldacre is well known for his relentless crusade to keep medical researchers and drug makers honest — and improve healing in the process. His recent and popular TED Talk focuses on a particular form of research misconduct that strikes at the core of all evidence-based treatment — the failure to publish negative findings. This publication “bias” is not subtle or inadvertent in most cases; indeed the opposite. The deliberate non-reporting of results unfavorable to a drug’s reputation is often motivated by greed, and can be lethal to patients.

As Goldacre and others have described elsewhere, other clinical research biases are less blatant and criminal, but they nevertheless undermine consumers’ trust in science and clinical evidence. I’d like to discuss one of those less obvious biases here today — this one from psychological science. It’s the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of placebo effects and control groups — a misunderstanding that, scientists are now arguing, invalidates any claims of effectiveness for almost all psychological interventions. Read the full essay »

Toni Miller: Getting Past the Idea of Failure

In his eye-opening talk, “What Doctors Don’t Know About the Drugs They Prescribe”, doctor and epidemiologist Ben Goldacre shows us the ways in which researchers can, and often do skew the data in studies, particularly those conducted in trials funded by the pharmaceutical industry, in order to influence the perception of their products. He points out that often times as much as half of the data is missing because the researchers typically do not publish the results of negative studies.

In absence of the full picture, doctors and the public can easily fall prey to the idea that a particular drug or treatment is effective, when in fact, the data would say otherwise. This is a serious problem. It is not a matter of simply persuading people to buy a new wrinkle cream. In many cases, particularly in the case of heart medication or cancer treatments, it is the difference between life and death. Read the full essay »