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Diminishing returns in medical therapy

I’m a few months late, but I want to mention an editorial by Rodney Hayward that was published in The BMJ in December 2015. His topic is treatment of diabetes, but the principles he discusses also apply to other areas of medicine. The key concept is that even in high risk conditions such as diabetes, adding a second or third medication brings diminishing absolute returns as residual risk decreases as each additional treatment is added. He starts by describing the disturbing consequences of untreated or poorly managed diabetes, and how things have changed with modern therapies.

When I began my medical training in 1980, I commonly encountered patients whose bodies were ravaged by end stage complications of diabetes. These patients often had marked visual impairment, debilitating neuropathy, myopathies, and diabetes related renal insufficiency, well before age 65 years. I still occasionally see such individuals, but they are rare, and tend to come from the 10-15% of patients who still have poor glycemic control. Improvement in diabetes care is a medical success story, but increasing evidence suggests that overly aggressive treatment is an under-appreciated problem.

The problem is that focusing on relative treatment effects ignores the law of diminishing returns; past a certain point, additional reductions in HbA1c have limited benefit in absolute terms for most older patients with type 2 diabetes. Hayward explains:

Diminishing returns is a mathematical fact, not a theory. Try this simple experiment. Serially tear a piece of paper in half and throw one half away. You will notice that the relative effects never diminish (you reduce the piece of paper by half each time), but it doesn’t take long for the 50% you throw away to become tiny. The many patients with end stage diabetes we saw in the 1980s often spent years with poor control of both glycemia and blood pressure. They had no access to metformin, home blood glucose monitoring, angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, and a host of other modern interventions. Each of these interventions substantially reduces disease progression and has an even larger effect on end stage diabetes complications. Because each intervention substantially reduces end stage complications, it should not be surprising that recent evidence has found intensive glycemic control to have a small absolute effect on end stage complications for most patients with type 2 diabetes. The law of diminishing returns predicts this result. Also, as the benefits of tighter glycemic control become smaller, the chances that treatment harms will outweigh treatment benefits become much greater.

Hayward ends by stating that the public good would best be served by focusing on the minority of diabetes patients who continue to be at substantial risk of diabetes-related morbidity and mortality and promoting more shared decision making with older diabetes patients who already have at least moderate blood glucose control.

The same principle of diminishing returns applies in other areas of medicine, such as in medications that reduce cardiovascular risk by lowering blood pressure or cholesterol. As the second and third medication is added, the patient’s risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event diminishes and in some cases a point can be reached where the absolute benefits become very small and it becomes difficult to tell whether benefits outweigh harms. When benefits become small, it can sometimes be hard to determine whether they exist at all or, perhaps, exist in only in patients with certain characteristics. See this post by Harlan Krumholz for a discussion of these issues in the area of treatment of high blood pressure.

In the area of cholesterol-lowering drugs, the new PCSK9 inhibitors have been in the news and I’ve previously discussed them on this blog (here, here and here). Two of these drugs, evolocumab and alirocumab, are approved in the U.S. and so far aren’t selling well. There are several reasons for that, including that the outcomes trials haven’t been completed yet and that the drugs are much more expensive than statins, almost all of which are available as generics. Another reason, related to the first two, is that insurance companies have imposed strict preauthorization requirements for these drugs. Another reason relates to the theme of this post, namely the diminishing returns from adding additional drugs. I’m going to take the treatment of heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (HeFH) as an example, specifically patients with HeFH who do not have clinical atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and who are thus being treated to prevent a first event (i.e., “primary prevention”).

HeFH greatly increases the risk of developing premature atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease compared to individuals with normal levels of cholesterol. Before statins became available, the drugs that were available were not very effective. However, in recent decades, first moderate intensity and then high intensity statins were instituted as standard treatment of HeFH, often with additional drugs such as ezetimibe. According to UpToDate, atorvastatin can reduce LDL by up to 54% and rosuvastatin can reduce LDL by up to 63%. Ezetimibe can lower LDL by another 15% or so in patients on a statin. Given that most patients with HeFH have LDL in the 200s or below, a reduction of 50-60% achieves very reasonable LDL levels. There is evidence that even moderate doses of statins greatly reduce the risk of heart disease in HeFH patients who are being treated for primary prevention. A study published in JAMA in 2014 showed that young adults with HeFH have near-normal levels of atherosclerosis 10 years after initiation of statin therapy. The use of high intensity statins has been shown to greatly reduce the progression of atherosclerosis in adult HeFH patients (see here and here) even when compared to moderate statin therapy. Thus, HeFH patients who start treatment early and are able to reduce their LDL to normal or near-normal levels over many years with a statin or statin + ezetimibe often do not need an additional drug, as their risk is greatly reduced.

So which HeFH patients do need an additional LDL-lowering therapy, such as a PCSK9 inhibitor? To my knowledge, there are no risk calculators available to guide decisions in this area. HeFH patients who start with very high LDL, who can’t tolerate high doses of statins or can’t tolerate statins at all, who started treatment late, who have additional cardiovascular risk factors, or who have had imaging that shows significant subclinical atherosclerosis, are going to be at higher risk, on average. There is quite a bit of uncertainty involved, as with estimation of cardiovascular risk in general. In addition, there are personal preferences involved, as people vary greatly in terms of how much risk they are willing to live with.

Interestingly, a task force of the International Atherosclerosis Society just published a consensus statement in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology that discusses some of the factors involved in determining cardiovascular risk in FH. Although the criteria they propose for use of additional therapies are more stringent than I foresee being adopted in the U.S., the paper contains some very useful discussion of the heterogeneity of cardiovascular risk in FH and ways of trying to predict who is at higher risk. I’m pasting in their proposed criteria below, in case anyone is interested, but I do recommend the entire paper.

proposed criteria for severe FH

“Be Brave”

In January, I blogged about an open letter by Harlan Krumholz and Rodney Hayward to the panel that is currently engaged in writing new guidelines for cholesterol management.  As discussed in my post, their letter challenges the committee to replace the current “treat to target” paradigm with a “tailored treatment” approach.  This has been one of my more popular posts of all time, and people often find my blog by Googling “Krumholz Hayward open letter” and the like.  It also has been discussed on CardioExchange.  So I knew their paper had created a bit of a buzz in the cardiology community.  Well, it appears that some in that community are not happy that someone is challenging the current paradigm.  Dr. Krumholz reports on CardioExchange that he was approached by an influential person and asked to stop speaking out on the new approach he is advocating:

I had an experience the other week that reminded me that speaking your mind has its challenges. I was approached by someone with influence who asked me to cease my discussions on a particular topic. The reason was oblique – and I was told that people are viewing me negatively because my views are strong and wondering if there are conflicts of interest that are influencing me. In essence, I was told that people are whispering about me – though no names were given.

Now this topic was part of a scientific debate that has strong implications for guidelines and performance measures – and, well, patients. It is a situation where I am questioning conventional wisdom – and the long held beliefs by many individuals. I am trying to do so respectfully – and through the use of evidence – but still it is questioning dogma.

This conversation prompted me to write a message to my younger colleagues urging them to stand up for what they believe – and be willing to speak truth to power. I quote my friend Victor Montori, who eloquently advised a junior colleague about how to manage a concern about whether to express an opinion that was likely to be viewed negatively by her superiors. That person had been told to hold opinions tight until he had more grey hair. Victor starts by saying: ‘I have struggled with this issue for years. Turns out that this is a common struggle for those who find themselves unable to stay silent in the face of waste, error, low integrity, or abuse.’

The message Dr. Krumholz wrote is in the form of an editorial in Circulation:  Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, entitled “A Note to My Younger Colleagues … Be Brave.”  The editorial is open access, so I urge you to go read it in its entirety, but I’m going to quote this paragraph, which seems key:

If you take the path toward clarity, I guarantee that you will occasionally find people who will disparage you. They may seek to undermine you, find ways to marginalize you, and try to incriminate you. They may come from directions that surprise you. Powerful ideas often attract attacks that focus more on individuals than ideas. If you raise inconvenient truths or voice uncomfortable opinions, particularly if they threaten someone’s comfortable status quo, then you will discover much about the character of those with whom you disagree. But always take the high road, engage in dialogue about ideas and evidence, and be motivated by the opportunity to best serve patients and the public. You will not regret it.

Although I am not a physician, I certainly recognize and have experienced the issues Dr. Krumholz is describing in my own life.  Speaking uncomfortable truths often isn’t considered nice and doesn’t win popularity contests, but it is necessary for progress to be made.  So I will keep covering this controversy, and I invite you to read Dr. Krumholz’s editorial and then let me know your thoughts.

Addendum:  Here are comments by Ben Goldacre on Dr. Krumholz’s editorial.

Hayward and Krumholz: Open Letter to the Adult Treatment Panel IV of the National Institutes of Health

Rodney Hayward and Harlan Krumholz have published an open letter to the committee that is currently engaged in writing updated guidelines for cardiovascular risk reduction.  Their letter challenges the committee to replace the current “treat to target” paradigm with a “tailored treatment” approach, as discussed below.

The primary focus of the current set of guidelines, ATP III , was a strategy of treating patients to target LDL-cholesterol levels, known as the “treat to target” paradigm.  Moreover, the “cutpoints,” or triggers, for initiating therapy are also based on LDL levels, with higher risk patients having lower cutpoints.  However, as Hayward, Krumholz and colleagues have previously argued (see here, here and here), the treat to target paradigm was not based on the results of clinical trials, since no major randomized controlled trial has tested the benefits of treating patients to LDL targets.  Rather, the trials have used fixed doses of lipid-lowering drugs.

Hayward and Krumholz argue that LDL levels are not particularly useful in assessing the 2 factors that help determine the benefit of a treatment for an individual patient:  (1) risk of morbidity and mortality in the absence of treatment (baseline risk) and (2) the degree to which the treatment reduces that risk.  For calculating baseline risk, LDL is only one of several factors that are considered, including age, gender, smoking, blood pressure, HDL, and family history of premature cardiovascular disease and in most cases contributes little to the estimate of cardiovascular risk.  For the second factor, clinical trials of statins demonstrate that the relative benefits of statins are not substantially related to pretreatment LDL levels.  Thus, a high risk person may have low LDL levels and a low risk person may have high LDL levels and the high risk person will derive more absolute benefit more from treatment even though his or her LDL is low (illustrated in this table).

Hayward and Krumholz also argue that treating to LDL targets can lead to treatments that have not been shown to be safe.  The treat to target approach can mean initiating treatment in patients at a relatively young age, leading to potentially many years of statin treatment.  The long-term safety of this approach is not yet known.  In addition, the perceived need to reach an LDL target often leads to the addition of nonstatin drugs such as niacin and ezetimibe when the maximum dose of a statin is reached and the patient’s LDL is still above goal.  The benefit and safety of adding these drugs on top of statin therapy has not yet been demonstrated.

The “tailored treatment” approach Hayward and Krumholz advocate bases intensity of statin treatment on a person’s 5- or 10-year cardiovascular risk.  In a previous paper, Hayward et al. tested a tailored treatment model of primary prevention using 5-year coronary artery disease (CAD) risk and compared it with the treat to target approach.  In their model, a person with 5% to 15% risk would be prescribed 40 mg simvastatin and a person with greater than 15% risk would be prescribed 40 mg atorvastatin.  Using this simulated model, the tailored treatment approach was found to prevent more CAD events while treating fewer persons with high-dose statins as compared to the treat to target approach.

For the reasons stated above, the tailored treatment approach does appear to me to be superior to the treat to target approach.  At the same time, I note that the decision to take a statin is a personal decision.  For primary prevention, the absolute benefit for most people of taking a statin over a 5 or 10 year period is small.  Each person should calculate their baseline risk (there are online risk calculators for this), look at how much their risk can be lowered with a statin, and ask themselves if the benefit seems worth it to them in terms of cost, inconvenience and possible side effects (including a small increase in risk of developing diabetes).

In addition, I note that neither approach is designed to apply to patients with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (FH).  Due to the very high risk of premature coronary heart disease in FH patients (approximately 85% of male FH patients and 50% of female FH patients will suffer a coronary event by age 65 if untreated), the treatment paradigm for FH patients is that all are treated with statins starting in childhood or early adulthood (not everyone agrees that it is necessary to start treatment in childhood but that’s a topic for another day).  In other words, FH patients are treated based on their lifetime risk, not their 5- or 10-year risk.


Hayward RA, Krumholz HM.  Three reasons to abandon low-density lipoprotein targets:  an open letter to the Adult Treatment Panel IV of the National Institutes of Health.  Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes.  2012:5;2-5.

Hayward RA, Hofer TP, Vijan S.  Narrative review:  lack of evidence for recommended low-density lipoprotein treatment targets:  a solvable problem.  Ann Intern Med.  2006;145:520-530.

Krumholz HM, Hayward RA.  Shifting views on lipid lowering therapy.  BMJ. 2010;341:c3531.

Hayward RA, Krumholz HM, Zulman DM, Timbie JW, Vijan S.  Optimizing statin treatment for primary prevention of coronary artery disease.  Ann Intern Med.  2010;152:69-77.

Rind DM.  Intensity of lipid lowering therapy in secondary prevention of coronary heart disease.  In:  Freeman MW, Sokol HN, eds.  UpToDate.  19.3 ed.