According to a new University of Sydney study thousands of preventable heart attacks and strokes may occur as a result of a biased television program.
On 24 and 31 October 2013, ABC television’s Catalyst program aired a two-part series that questioned the link between blood cholesterol and heart disease, and whether current dietary advice or statin medication was effective in lowering heart disease risk. Although the first program on diet was very biased Catalyst may have got away with it as the science around diet and heart disease is considered rather ‘soft’ and is still unfolding.
However, the second program on statins, cholesterol and heart disease was on very firm scientific ground. The last time I looked there were 24 meta-analyses on statin medication and heart disease risk and all showed benefit. But rather than present this perspective Catalyst decided that the public interest would be better served by sowing seeds of doubt.
There were howls of protest. To their credit, other journalists at the ABC took aim at Catalyst. Media Watch presenter Paul Barry said … Catalyst struck us as sensationalist and grossly unbalanced; and some of their so-called ‘experts’ had questionable qualifications.
The ABC’s health guru Dr Norman Swan considered the health implications saying that People will die as a result of the Catalyst program …. It doesn’t get much stronger than that. Was Swan going over the top, or did he just have a good understanding of his subject?
New University of Sydney study
A new study led by researchers at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Pharmacy has provided some answers. The purpose of the study was to quantify any changes in the dispensing of statins after the airing of the Catalyst program in October 2013. The researchers found significant and sustained changes in statin dispensing following the airing of the program, 60,897 Australians having been affected up to 30 June 2014.
In relation to the health implications the researchers had the following to say:
If the 60,897 individuals we estimated to have been affected continue to be non-adherent, this could result in between 1522 and 2900 preventable, and potentially fatal, major vascular events.
So, unless the situation can be reversed a couple of thousand preventable heart attacks or strokes may occur as a direct result of the Catalyst program. It’s impossible to say how many of these events will be fatal so we can’t accurately answer the question posed at the top of this post. But it would appear that Norman Swan did indeed know what he was talking about when he made the claim that People will die.
Spare a thought for the poor souls working in the ABC’s legal section. Just imagine the litigation to come.
How did the ABC let it happen?
Although current affairs programs on commercial television often present shock-horror health stories, the community expects more from the ABC, especially from its science program. No doubt the credibility of both the ABC and Catalyst led to the high ratings and high impact of the cholesterol programs – people thought it was true. Yet these two programs would have to rate as the most irresponsible and dangerous piece of health journalism ever aired in Australia. Has any other single act of journalism ever put the health and lives of so many people at risk?
What is unclear, however, is why these programs ever saw the light of day? Who pitched the idea to Catalyst? Why would any producer of a reputable science program take it on? Why was the program’s research so bad and so one-sided? Who chose the dodgy ‘experts’ to mount the non-science argument? Why didn’t the ABC’s internal systems start flashing red lights before the program went to air?
The offending Catalyst programs have been removed from the internet so no more damage can be done. How the producer of the cholesterol programs managed to keep her job at Catalyst is a mystery? Wasn’t the casualty rate high enough?
In the meantime the next chapter in the cholesterol story is about to unfold. I’ll cover it in my next post.