Would you stop taking medicine your doctor recommended after watching a documentary? A study in the Medical Journal of Australia found more than 60,000 Australians did in the months after an episode of the science program Catalyst aired in 2013.
In October 2013, two episodes of Catalyst aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. titled "Heart of the Matter" focused on the link between cholesterol and heart disease, and questioned the use of anti-cholesterol drugs known as statins although its conclusions were challenged by doctors and medical experts. Their main fear was people could be discouraged from taking potentially life-saving drugs, which is exactly what the recent Medical Journal of Australia study indicates.
The study looked at Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme records, which are anonymized and made publicly available by the Australian Department of Health. Using that data, researchers found in the eight months after "Heart of the Matter" first aired, an estimated 60,897 fewer people picked up statins than statistically could be expected. Over the next five years, the study's authors estimated 1,522 to 2,900 fatal heart attacks could have been the result of decreased use of statins.
The most recent study is the latest event in a controversy that has been roiling in Australia since "Heart of the Matter" first aired. Shortly after the second episode aired, Norman Swan, an ABC health reporter, warned people will die as a result of the episode. ABC eventually found the second episode lacked "principal relevant perspective." Replays of both episodes were removed from the ABC website, and a correction was appended in May 2014. Both parts of the documentary can still be viewed on YouTube.
The study underscores an ongoing debate about the role of the media in reporting science. As media tries to make complicated and often incremental discoveries in the field of medicine understandable for a large audience, it sometimes inserts its own biases or loses sight of the medical mainstream. The study indicates flawed media reports can significantly affect people's medical choices.