Observations Medicine and the Media

The press release, relative risks, and the polypill

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d4720 (Published 27 July 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4720
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}margaretmccartney.com

A press release about a recent paper gave only relative risks, which the lay media then reported. This information is meaningless, writes Margaret McCartney, without any sense of absolute risk

The polypill unleashed! On the 26 May 2011 the Wellcome Trust announced, “International trial finds polypill halves predicted heart disease and stroke risk.” In a press release it stated, “The once a day polypill contains aspirin and agents to lower blood pressure and cholesterol . . . many experts believe that combining them into a single pill will encourage people to take the medications more reliably” (www.wellcome.ac.uk/News/Media-office/Press-releases/2011/WTVM051508.htm). The press release contained several statistics, claiming a “halving in heart disease and stroke,” and a “20-50 per cent lower death rate from colon cancer, plus reductions in other major cancers, heart failure and renal failure.” Numbers needed to treat (NNTs) were given for the risk of side effects (“1 in 6 experienced a side effect . . . 1 in 20 overall stopped treatment …

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