Watch out for sleight of hand in deceptive medical statistics

The promotional material that pharmaceutical representatives present to doctors is riddled with soft deception.

sleight of hand

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

There is much truth in this quotation of uncertain provenance. We see this phenomenon regularly in the medical profession. We see it in medical journals when statistics are presented in a manner that exaggerates the benefit of a treatment or a diagnostic test. Massaging numbers is raised to an art form by the pharmaceutical companies who will engage in numerical gymnastics to shine a favorable light on their product. It’s massaging, not outright mendacity. The promotional material that pharmaceutical representatives present to doctors is riddled with soft deception.

A favorite from their bag of tricks is to rely upon relative value rather than absolute value. Here’s how this works in this hypothetical example.

A drug named Profitsoar is tested to determine if it can reduce the risk of a heart attack. Two thousand patients are participating in the study. Each patients receives either Profitsoar or a placebo at random. Here are the results.

                         1000 Profitsoar Patients         1000 Placebo Patients

# Heart Attacks         4                                                        6

As is evident, only 2 patients were spared a heart attack by the drug. This is a trivial benefit as only 6 of 1000 patients in the placebo group suffered a heart attack. This means that taking the drug provides no meaningful protection for an individual patient. However, the drug companies will highlight the results in relative terms to package the results differently. They will claim that Profitsoar reduced heart attack rates by 33 percent, which would lure many patients, and a few doctors, to drink the Kool-Aid.

Check out this promotional piece below which was recently mailed to me about Uceris, a steroid that I use at times for colitis patients.


See how low the actual remission rates are for the drug. Only 18 percent of patients responded to the drug, a small minority, and the placebo rate was 6 percent. No worries. Just brag that Uceris is 3 times more effective than placbo!

Is this a lie? Not exactly. Is it the truth? Technically yes.

Most physicians are tuned into this deception. I know from my own patients that the public is easily seduced by this slick presentation of data. The next time you see a TV ad for a medication, which will be about 5 minutes after you turn on the TV, see if you can spot the illusion. You’ll have to watch quickly and repeatedly. Like all skilled magicians, these guys are expert at distraction and sleight of hand. Hint: Whenever you hear the word “percent,” as in “35 percent of patients responded…,” you should pay particular attention.

When we used to see a woman sawed in half on stage, we knew it was a trick even if we couldn’t explain how it was done. I’ve taken you behind the curtain here. Let’s make it a fair fight between us and illusionists.

Photos: Flickr user Gordon Cowan, Michael Kirsch

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