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Relative risks, Absolute problems

by Kazeem Olalekan MRPharmS

A news article in the Pharmaceutical Journal online caught my attention. The news relates to a Cochrane review which indicated that “relative risk reduction should not be reported alone when communicating information about health interventions’ since they do not allow a fair comparison of benefits and harms”.

pj_relative_risks

I couldn’t agree more. The example that stick in my mind relates to the news article in September last year carried by The Guardian: “Study cautions over long term use of osteoporosis drugs and cancer risk” (1) and Daily Mail: “Drug to fight bone thinning double the risk of cancer”(2). The Daily Mail headline appear quite sensational and I have patients visiting my practice worried whether they should continue to use these medicines.

Looking behind the headlines(3), it appears that the risk was increased from 1 in 1000 to 2 in 1000 with no indication of the absolute risk of developing throat cancer in UK population receiving biphosphonates. So as you can see, relative risk can be an absolute problem.

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