Most modern pharmaceuticals come with strict warnings – there’s seldom a drug on the market that doesn’t stress the likelihood of its dangerous side effects. But apparently the number of negative side effects is a mere fraction of those reported in the original clinical data. According to a recent analysis published in PLOS Medicine journal, approximately half of all medical literature reporting on clinical trials leave out adverse side effects.
The research was conducted by scientists from the University of East Anglia in the UK, who opted to investigate 28 journal articles that cross-referenced data from up to 500 clinical trials. The team concludes that there exists “strong evidence that much of the information on adverse events remains unpublished and that the number and range of adverse events is higher in unpublished than in published versions of the same study.”
What does this mean? The original raw data from trials – which doesn’t appear in medical journals – show more adverse effects than the published versions of those same trials. The repercussions of these findings are immense; if a physician is unaware of the additional side effects, then how can they knowledgeably prescribe a drug to a patient? Those side effects may counter pre-existing conditions or interfere with existing prescription medications. Last year a TED talk investigated the chemical reactions that take place when a person mixes medications – and that’s when physicians are aware of the basic side effects.
So why are so many adverse side effects kept out of medical journals? “I think one of the problems is that journals are limited by space and the scope of what they can publish,” Yoon Loke, a physician and lecturer at the University of East Anglia and one of the study’s authors told Scientific American.
“I myself was an editor of a scientific journal, and often you want to publish interesting, positive things that people want to read. It’s an optimism bias. There are a lot of other issues that have been hinted at, too. For example, for a company to market a product, it may be more beneficial to publish more favorable results, as opposed to adverse events.”
In light of this news, a new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. National Institutes of Health now means the results of all clinical trials must be publicly available – whatever the outcome. Also, the University of Oxford has designed a new online hub called Trial Tracker that allows you to see which pharmaceutical companies are withholding their trial data.
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