Controversy over the risks and benefits of statins, covered widely in the media, was followed by a temporary increase in the number of patients stopping their treatment, according to researchers.
The increase in stopping was seen among patients taking statins for secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease as well as high risk patients taking it for primary prevention.
The study authors said their findings highlighted “the potential for widely covered health stories in the lay media to impact on healthcare related behaviour”.
In October 2013, two articles were published in the British Medical Journal that questioned the value of extending the use of statins to healthy people at low risk of heart disease.
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The papers were heavily criticised by some researchers, prompting widespread media debate about their potential risks and benefits of statins.
The new study, also published in the BMJ, measured how the intense public debate – lasting roughly from October 2013 to March 2014 – affected the likelihood of patients starting and stopping statins.
Media coverage of statin controversy cut compliance
Using prescribing data from UK primary care records, they calculated the number of people aged 40 and over starting and stopping statins each month from January 2011 to March 2015.
Patients already taking statins were more likely to stop taking them for both primary and secondary prevention, following the high media coverage period.
This was particularly true of older patients and those with a longer continuous prescription, said the researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
They estimated that more than 200,000 patients across the UK may have stopped statin therapy in the six months after the media coverage.
This, they warned, could potentially lead to over 2,000 extra heart attacks and strokes if the trend continued over the next 10 years.
“It’s essential that patients don’t make any unilateral decisions to stop taking medicines”
Study author Professor Liam Smeeth said: “Our findings suggest that widespread coverage of health stories in the mainstream media can have an important, real world impact on the behaviour of patients and doctors. This may have significant consequences for people’s health.”
Although he acknowledged it was “undoubtedly important” for such debates to be “reflected in the media”, he said that, in the case of statins, widespread reporting of the debate may have “given disproportionate weight to a minority view about possible side effects”.
This had dented public confidence in a drug that “most scientists and health professionals believe to be a safe and effective option against heart disease for the vast majority of patients”, said Professor Smeeth.
A second paper, also published today by the BMJ, estimated discontinuation rates of statins for over half a million UK patients.
It found that, although more than 40% of statin users discontinue their therapy at some point, more than 70% of them subsequently restart treatment.
Because of the lack of data on reasons for discontinuations, however, the study authors said they could not directly address why some patients discontinued taking statins.
Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Whatever the debate in the media – and among healthcare professionals – about the potential health risks of statins, or any other medication, it’s essential that patients don’t make any unilateral decisions to stop taking medicines.
“It is important that patients who are prescribed them undertake regular medication reviews,” she added.