We are all Guinea Pigs!

I do like having the odd shout at the TV, like most sane individuals, and it tends to be the news that really gets me going.  One throw away comment I heard recently had me yelling in exasperation was the relative of a “victim”, and I use the word advisedly, complaining about doctors using patients as guinea-pigs.

“I’ve got news for you,” I shouted, “we’re all guinea pigs every time we walk into a doctor’s surgery!”. It may not be worth a shout, I do get worked up over some strange things, but it is an important point.

The data from clinical trials and similar studies are crucial to working out whether a particular treatment is effective.  Huge amounts of information are available – drugs are normally tested on tens of thousands of patients before they are licensed for general use.  The results of these trials are added up and presented as statistics.  Statistics that might say, for example, that a drug will increase lifespan of patients with a particular disease by an average of 18 months.  That’s the average, not what will happen to everyone who takes the drug.  Some will live longer than average, some less and some may even die sooner than if they hadn’t taken the drug.

The issue is that we are all individuals and our response to different treatments varies.  And, crucially, that response is unpredictable. Doctors use a combination of their experience and data from clinical trials to work out the best treatment to give their patients.  When a doctor hands you a prescription and says “try this for two weeks and lets see what happens”, that is exactly what they mean.  They are making a highly educated guess about what is wrong with you and what treatment you need, nevertheless it is a guess.  They will monitor you and if it works everyone’s happy, if it doesn’t then they’ll try something else.

The tricky question is does this matter?  I think not in the sense of making a difference to health care.  With a very few well documented exceptions doctors do their best to make us better.  But does it matter that we understand that medicine is as much an art as a science? Absolutely!

written by Toby Murcott, lecturer on CASE’s MSc Communicating Science, and taken with kind permission from his FirstScience.com Blog



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