No Pain Relief for Tort Sufferers

James Hamilton takes a look at one of the key studies on Vioxx and heart attacks.  He is not greatly impressed.

I took a look at one of the studies on which the decision was
justified, written by Dr. David Graham and co-authors and published in Lancet
in February. This study looked at 8,143 Kaiser Permanente patients who
had suffered a heart attack and had also at some point taken a
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), of which Vioxx (rofecoxib)
is one. Of these patients, 68 were taking rofecoxib while 4,658 were
receiving no medication at the time of their heart attack, a ratio of
(68/4658) = 1.46%. For comparison, the study looked at 31,496 other
patients who had also at some point taken an NSAID, matched for
characteristics like age and gender with the first group, but who
didn’t have a heart attack. The ratio of rofecoxib users to those with
no current medication was slightly lower (1.05%) in this second group,
which one might summarize as a (1.46/1.05) = 1.39-fold increase risk of
heart attack from taking rofecoxib compared to no NSAID. Is that
statistically significant, in other words, can you rule out that you’d
see a difference of that size just by chance? Yes, the study claimed,
but just barely.

On the other hand, this was not a controlled experiment, in which
you give the rofecoxib randomly to some patients and not others in
order to see what happens. Rather, something about either these
patients or their doctors led some of them to be using rofecoxib and
others not. Dr. Graham and co-authors looked at a variety of indicators
that suggested that the rofecoxib patients already had slightly
elevated risk factors for coronary heart disease. Once they controlled
for these with a logistic regression, their study found an elevated
risk factor of heart attack for rofecoxib takers of 1.34, which was not
statistically significantly distinguishable from 1.0.

The strongest evidence from this study was a claimed dose-effect
relation. Of these 68 rofecoxib-using heart-attack patients, 10 of them
were taking doses above 25 mg per day. Only 8 patients in the much
larger control group were taking so high a dose, implying an elevated
risk factor of 5 to 1 for high-dose patients. Again observable risk
factors could explain some of this, with the conditional logistic
regression analysis bringing the implied drug-induced risk down to 3 to
1. According to the study, this elevated risk factor was still
statistically significant, even though the inference is based on the
experience of just 10 patients.

The obvious question here is whether in fact the authors were able
to observe all the relevant risk factors. The study openly acknowledged
that it did not, missing such important information as smoking and
family history of myocardial infarction.

…[E]ven if
there actually is an elevated risk of the magnitude the studies suggest
but can’t prove, the question is whether I might want to accept a 1 in 4,000 risk of dying from a heart attack in order to get the only medication timt makes my pain bearable and a mobile life livable.  And if I say no to the Vioxx, I may end up taking something that is less effective for my pain but has risks of its own.

…. How did we arrive at a
system in which 12 random Texans are assigned responsibility for
evaluating the scientific merits of statistical evidence of this type,
weighing the costs and benefits, and potentially sending a productive blue-chip American company into bankruptcy protection?

See also my op-ed Bringing the Consumer Revolution to the FDA.