I just want to highlight this profile on my friend Harlan Krumholz in Yale Alumni Magazine. Harlan is a Yale cardiologist who is a leader in the field of outcomes research — figuring out what works in the real world and applying those lessons to improve outcomes for patients. In the process, he has not been afraid to take on powerful interests, as he did by testifying in the Vioxx trials (described in Snigdha Prakash’s new book All the Justice Money Can Buy) and publishing articles on how the Vioxx debacle happened and what we can learn from it (see here, here, here and here).
I first contacted Harlan after reading about his presentation on the ENHANCE trial at the March 2008 American College of Cardiology meeting. The ENHANCE trial was designed to test whether ezetimibe, a drug that lowers LDL, added any benefit to a statin in slowing the progression of atherosclerosis, as measured by carotid intima-media thickness. My daughter, who has heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, had been on ezetimibe at one point, so I was particularly interested in the trial. Unfortunately, ezetimibe added no benefit at all and Harlan, representing a panel of cardiologists, was not afraid to state that it is not enough to know a drug’s effect on laboratory markers such as LDL. Rather, we need to know whether a drug improves clinical outcomes, such as heart attacks, strokes and death. As Harlan put it,
There are 3 possibilities with this drug. Eventually—one day, when outcomes studies are finally done—we may recognize that it is an effective medication for reducing cardiovascular risk. The ENHANCE study makes that less likely, but it is not impossible.
It could be that ezetimibe is simply an expensive placebo, and its principal harm is that it drains precious resources from our health care system and possibly leads people to use fewer of the drugs that have been shown to be beneficial. The ENHANCE study suggests that this may be true.
Third, it could be harmful. We do not know enough about the clinical risks of this drug. It is well tolerated and there are no obvious safety problems, but we cannot say if there is an increased risk of acute myocardial infarction or death or another important health problem.
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This study heralds the need for clinical research to guide us in decisions for our patients; ideally, this work must be done early in the drug’s development. It is not right that we are this far down the line with this drug and we have so much uncertainty about its balance of risks and benefits. We must understand the effect of new drugs on people and that relying on a drug’s effect on a set of laboratory tests may not tell the whole story. We have learned this lesson before. It appears that we must learn it again.
Addendum: Just published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, this editor’s perspective by Harlan Krumholz entitled “Patient-Centered Medicine: The Next Phase in Health Care.” Here’s an excerpt:
What matters most to patients are outcomes: Did I recover? Is my quality of life better? Patients want to know what has been accomplished by the tests and treatments they have undergone and what has been achieved by the time and resources that have been expended. It is time for us to fully embrace patient-centered medicine, which is ultimately outcomes oriented, with a focus on what patients experience and, among the range of medically reasonable options, gives precedence to what patients prefer.