More and More Pills for 25-30% Better Odds of This, That and The Other – Some Patients Want That, and Some Will Run the Other Way


I scribbled my signature on a pharmaceutical rep’s iPad today for some samples of Jardiance, a diabetes drug that now has expanded indications according to the Food and Drug Administration. This drug lowers blood sugar (reduces HbA1c by less than 1 point) but also reduces diabetes related kidney damage, heart attacks, strokes and now also admission rates for heart failure (from 4.1% to 2.7% if I remember correctly – a significant relative risk reduction but not a big absolute one; the Number Needed to Treat is about 70, so 69 out of 70 patients would take it in vain for the heart failure indication. The NNT for cardiovascular death is around 38 over a three year period – over a hundred patient years for one patient saved). There are already other diabetes drugs that can reduce cardiovascular risk and I see cardiologists prescribing them for non-diabetics.

It’s a bit of a head scratcher and it makes me think of the recently re-emerged interest in the notion of a “Polypill” with several ingredients that together reduce heat attack risk. The tested Polypill formulations are all very inexpensive, which is a big part of their attraction. Jardiance, on the other hand, costs about $400 per month.

The “rep” asked whether this medication would be something I’d be likely to discuss with my diabetic patients.

“Well, you know I’ve only got fifteen minutes…” dampened his expectations. But I told him about the Polypill studies. I think patients are still not ready to make the distinction between on the one hand medications that treat a more or less quantifiable problem like blood sugar levels, blood pressure or the much less straightforward lipid levels and on the other hand ones that only change statistical outcomes. Most of my patients have trouble wrapping their head around taking a $400 a month pill that doesn’t make them feel better or score a whole lot better on their lab test but only changes the odds of something most people think will never happen to them anyway.

I’m a simple minded person in some ways, I guess, but it helps me in my patient interactions to distinguish between what we know with decent certainty and what we think is a good probability and also between what tangible benefit a treatment can be expected to offer as opposed to just some statistical advantage that means nothing if you draw the shorter straw.

It almost makes sense to think of a two tiered approach to healthcare: some people truly want every statistical advantage and pharmaceutical intervention possible while others just want to treat what they can see or measure, and I think we have to figure out where each patient falls on the spectrum between those opposites, or we will overwhelm and lose patients and see them give up on everything we might have to offer.

Whichever approach patients take requires their commitment and determination and we need to listen carefully for clues about their beliefs and willingness to treat. There’s no point in prescribing anything in a half hearted way, because treatment adherence isn’t likely to be very good then. And doing a hard sell to a disinclined patient in fifteen minutes along with many other things we need to cover is a pipe dream and a guaranteed turnoff.

So, and this is a thought I’ve developed working with horses: Doctors shouldn’t be horse whisperers, nor should horse people. People have looked at this from the wrong vantage point. You don’t whisper to the horse so it will do what you want – you must first listen to the horse, and then, once you know how the horse feels about things, you can whisper your suggestion. And because the horse trusts you and knows you’d never suggest anything that is completely against its nature, the horse is likely to follow your low key, “whispered” suggestion better than a harsh command.

But listening comes before whispering, in horsemanship and in healthcare.

Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.

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3 replies »

  1. Another excellent piece from Hans!
    Thank you.

    But in this case, I must disagree.

    In the U.S., If We Want to Offer Good Healthcare For All,
    Doctors simply cannot prescribe medicines like ” Jardiance,
    which costs about $400 a month” instead of
    “Polypill formulations which are all very inexpensive.”

    Doctors need to consider what will make society as a whole Healthier
    not just what will make the patient standing in front of him Happier.

    As you indicate, there is usually very little medical evidence that the
    ultra-expensive mediation works better, or would help your particular patient.

    Drug-makers lift the prices of products
    for seriously ill patients sky-high
    because they know their “customers”
    (a.k.a. patients) are desperate.

    Understandably, those patients want to believe that the most expensive
    new product will save them
    But recent medical research show that just isn’t true.
    The most expensive, newest drugs that come to market
    have not gone through enough trials to show that they
    will help most patients.
    In some cases, after they have come to market, we learn
    that they do patients more harm than good.

    This was not always true.
    Back in the 60’s and even in the 70’s
    “miracle drugs” were still coming
    to market.

    But now, we’ve solved the easy problems.

    We don’t’ have “miracle drugs’ for
    Cancer, Alzheimers, or so many diseases
    that we haven’t been able to crasck

    Eventually (in 20 or 30 years?)
    science may well solve those
    problems, though during that time,
    probably new diseases will appear.
    (Climate Change & carbons in the
    atmosphere may have something to
    do with this.)

    My point is that Drug-Makers will
    never make us Immortal.

    We should be wary of those who charge
    prices which suggest that,if you are rich,
    and give us your money,
    You Can Live Forever!

    And Doctors really must tell
    patients the truth, even though
    they may be terribly frightened
    & angry.

    There are other ways to comfort patients.
    Just tell them that you will be with
    them, until the very end.

  2. There Has Definitely Been An Increase In The Consumption Of Pills Over The Years Due To Instant Relief Of Different Medical Conditions.

  3. I was looking for some Drugs articles to read over lunch today (yes, I’m a nerd like that) when i found your excellent article:
    It might make a nice addition to your article
    Either way, keep up the awesome work!

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