(p. A25) In this age of instant information, medicine remains anchored in the practice of releasing new knowledge at a deliberate pace. It’s time for medical scientists to think differently about how quickly they alert the public to breakthrough findings.
Last week the National Institutes of Health announced that it had prematurely ended a large national study of how best to treat people with high blood pressure because of its exceptional results.
In this trial of more than 9,000 people age 50 and older with high blood pressure, an aggressive treatment strategy to keep systolic blood pressure below 120 was compared with a conventional one aimed at keeping it below 140. The subjects all had a high risk of heart attacks, stroke and heart failure. The N.I.H. concluded, six years into a planned eight-year study, that for these patients, pushing blood pressure down far below currently recommended levels was very beneficial.
. . .
The new information may justify a more vigorous strategy for treating blood pressure, but for now doctors and patients have been left with incomplete results, some headlines and considerable uncertainty about whether to modify current treatments.
Medicine needs to change its approach to releasing new, important information. Throughout science we are seeing more rapid modes of communication. The traditional approach was not to publish until everything was finalized and ready to be chiseled in stone. But these sorts of delays are unnecessary with the Internet. Moreover, although all the trial data has yet to be tabulated, an analysis was considered sufficiently definitive to lead independent experts to stop the multimillion-dollar study.
We believe that when there is such strong evidence for a major public health condition, there should be rapid release of the information that led to the decision to stop the trial. This approach could easily be accomplished by placing the data on the N.I.H. website or publishing the data on such platforms as bioRxiv.org, which enables fast, open review by the medical community.
. . .
Kudos to the scientists who conducted such a large, complex and important study with what will be likely to have lifesaving consequences for a condition that can be treated easily in most patients. Now the medical community needs to adopt a new approach in situations like this one to disseminate lifesaving results in a timely, comprehensive and transparent way. Lives depend on it.
For the full commentary, see:
ERIC J. TOPOL and HARLAN M. KRUMHOLZ. “Don’t Sit on Medical Breakthroughs.” The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 17, 2015): A25.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 17, 2015, and the title “Don’t Delay News of Medical Breakthroughs.”)