Statins on Catalyst and the role of all forms of media in the health of Australians

I thought I’d start this article with a mention of a campaign that is touted as one of Australia’s most successful health campaigns. It was the “slip, slop, slap” campaign launched by the Cancer Council Australia in 1980 which let us know about three ways of protecting us against skin cancer. That is, slipping on a shirt, slopping on some sunscreen and slapping on a hat.

While the “slip, slop, slap” message is an example of a public health campaign, and the rest of this article will be focused on the information presented on the ABC’s Catalyst program, the real point I would like to make is about the potential dangers of people taking any health advice from anyone apart from a health professional who knows their individual medical history.

In my opinion, anything that is released in any type of media, whether it is a TV show, social media or a blog, essentially becomes a public health campaign, whether it is intended that way or not. And while people who put together a formal public health campaign would do so with the intention that they are indeed creating a public health campaign, the rest of us need to be wary of how our content will be used.

In October and November this year, there were many articles published following on from Catalyst’s two-part series “The heart of the matter”. In this series, Catalyst presented data being touted by 4 experts from the USA which claimed that people are being misled, and that cholesterol/saturated fats are not to blame in the development of cardiovascular disease. This series also featured a doctor who claimed that the evidence about the side-effects of the statins, a group of drugs used to lower cholesterol, had been distorted by drug companies, to the point where they were part-taking in a form of “organised crime” against the patients.

Now I’m not here to enter into the cholesterol and statin debate, as others have (e.g. Rosemary Stanton and NPS Medicinewise). The point I’m making here is that any health information we put online may be acted upon by others, whether that is the right thing to do in their case or not.

Interestingly, in part two of the Catalyst series, there was a disclaimer saying that “the views expressed in this episode of Catalyst are not intended as medical advice. Please consult with your doctor regarding your medications.” The very next day in which I was in optometric practice, I was consulted by a patient in his 60s, who, when I asked him about what medications he was taking rattled off a list, but then said that he’d stopped taking his statin, because, hadn’t I seen on the ABC, “that s#!t will kill ya.” When I told him that it would be best to chat to his GP about it, I was informed that his GP was part of the conspiracy with the drug company.

And apparently this isn’t a one-off case. A fairly small online poll of 150 GPs was completed soon after the Catalyst series aired, and showed that up to 40% of patients who told their doctor they were concerned about the information presented by Catalyst had already stopped taking their statins. Of the patients who had, or wanted to stop their statins, GPs considered that 58% were in the category of high cardiovascular risk. It makes me wonder how many more patients (like the one I saw) went off their statins without consulting their doctor at all.

So given that in this day and age there will be people who act on health information from a variety of sources, it is up to health professionals to be having more in-depth conversations with people giving them both sides of the story – that is, the possible risks and benefits of any procedure or treatment regime we may undertake.

And to remember that anything we put out there via any form of media can be construed as a public health campaign, which, by definition of the World Health Organisation, “refers to all organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole.”

Perhaps one day we could have enough blogs and media publicity from credible health practitioners giving both sides of a story – that is – the possible pros and cons that are inherent in ANY treatment our patients can have – that it drowns out all the other rubbish out there!!

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