The need to go beyond impressions

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If patients believe that something helps them, isn’t that enough?  Why is it important to go to the trouble and
expense of doing research to try to assess the effects of the treatment more formally, and perhaps to try to find out whether and if so how it has helped them? ‘There are at least two reasons. One is that treatments that do not work may distract us from treatments that do work.

Another reason is that many (if not most) treatments have adverse side-effects, some short term, some longer term, and some still unrecognized. If patients do not use these treatments, they can be spared the unwanted effects. So it is worth identifying treatments that are very unlikely to help or might cause more harm than benefit. Research may also uncover important information about how treatments work, and so indicate possibilities for developing better and safer treatments.

Research about the effects of treatments is relevant everywhere, but especially in communities that endeavour to share healthcare resources fairly among all patients – for example, in the British National Health Service, or the US Veterans Health Administration.

In these circumstances, decisions always have to be taken about which treatments represent good value for the inevitably limited resources available for healthcare. If some patients are given treatments that have not been shown to be useful, this may mean depriving other patients of treatments that have been shown to be beneficial.

None of this should suggest that patients’ and clinicians’  impressions and ideas about the effects of treatments are unimportant. Indeed they are often the starting point for formal investigation of apparently promising new treatments. Following up such impressions with formal research can sometimes lead to the identification of both harmful and useful effects of treatments.

For example, it was a woman who had been treated with the drug diethylstilboestrol (DES) during pregnancy two decades earlier who first suggested that this might have caused her daughter’s rare vaginal cancer.

And when a patient mentioned unexpected side-effects of a new treatment prescribed for his raised blood pressure, neither he nor his doctor could have imagined that his comment would lead to the identification of an all-time best-selling drug – sildenafil (Viagra).

So, individuals’ impressions about the effects of treatments should not be ignored, but they are seldom a reliable basis for drawing sound conclusions about the effects of treatments, let alone for recommending treatments to others.