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Unpublished studies distort assessment of treatments

Although published studies say a given treatment is effective, a host of unpublished studies may have reached precisely the opposite conclusion, according to Claire McCarthy, M.D., a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston.

In a recent blog entry for the Huffington Post, McCarthy warns of researchers’ tendency to publish only studies showing that a treatment is effective.

As an example of the distorted perceptions the situation can cause, McCarthy mentions a recent article in the journal Pediatrics concerning a type of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

According to the article, a number of studies showed that SSRIs can stop the repetitive behaviors of autism, such as hand-flapping and head-banging. But researchers subsequently found just as many unpublished studies showing that SSRIs didn’t help those symptoms.

McCarthy writes that the problem is likely due in part to the fact that studies promising a new cure for a condition are more likely to get attention and readers, so medical journals may be more likely to publish them than studies with a negative result.

But she writes that researchers may also contribute to the problem for much the same reason. Researchers may neglect to write up or even complete studies that get a negative result, simply because such studies are unlikely to get the same amount of attention.

Medical providers and consumers should be worried about the situation, because they can get a distorted impression of a treatment’s effectiveness, according to McCarthy.

None of this means you can’t trust medical research. “It means that you need to ask questions, learn about the sources of the information, read widely and — always — talk to your doctor before you make a health decision based on a study,” McCarthy writes.

A number of recent studies have raised questions about SSRIs. For example, several studies have linked SSRIs including Zoloft and Prozac with potentially dangerous heart and lung defects in babies born to women who take the drugs while pregnant.

Patients should consult their doctors before making any changes in their medication. A consultation with an SSRI lawyer is also important if there are significant injuries.

See the blog entry here: