Methods used in reporting results of new treatments may be misleading

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) -- Articles appearing in five top medical journals often present results in a way that may be misleading, according to two UC Davis School of Medicine researchers.

"The public expects advertisers to use the most flattering statistics to bolster claims of effectiveness in promoting products," said UC Davis research and family physician Jim Nuovo. "However, most of us expect that medical journals will provide complete reporting of all important aspects of research on a new treatment. Without more comparative data, readers may be basing their decisions to use a new treatment on incomplete information."

Nuovo and family physician Joy Melnikow, who are both faculty in UC Davis School of Medicines Department of Family and Community Medicine, reviewed 359 articles involving new treatments published between 1989 and 1998 in the frequently cited journals: the Annals of Internal Medicine, British Journal of Medicine, Journal of American Medical Association, The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine. Results of the UC Davis review are published as a brief report in the June 5 edition of JAMA.

"Our review of the literature showed that, in the majority of cases, only the most favorable statistic -- the relative-risk reduction -- was used when reporting the results of these studies," Nuovo said.

Of the 359 articles discussing the results of randomized trials -- considered the gold standard for assessing new treatments -- only eight reported a more explicit statistic, the "number needed to treat," and only 18 used "absolute-risk reduction."

Number needed to treat is the statistical number of patients who may be subjected to a bad outcome, such as death, stroke or heart attack, before the new treatment prevents a bad outcome. For example, if a drug has a number needed to treat of five, it means physicians would statistically have to treat five people with the drug before preventing a bad outcome.


Contact: Martha Alcott
University of California, Davis - Health System

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