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Medical studies often don't compare existing treatments

March 9, 2010 |  1:00 pm

MedStudies Medical journals are full of research comparing new treatments to existing treatments or comparing new treatments to placebo treatments. But researchers apparently aren't keen on comparing existing treatments with each other -- despite the fact that this kind of information may be of the most immediate use to consumers.

In a study published Tuesday, researchers at Keck School of Medicine at USC and Harvard, found that only 32% of medication studies published in top medical journals compared the effectiveness of existing treatments. In the analysis, which featured 328 medication studies in six leading journals, most compared medications against an inactive substance (a placebo) or involved unapproved therapies that are not currently available to doctors.

Only 11% of the studies compared existing drugs with existing non-drug therapies, such as surgery or lifestyle changes. It also appears that the studies comparing existing therapies are more likely to be funded by nonprofit or government institutions -- not pharmaceutical companies. The study will be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

"Which of the more than 30 blood pressure medications on the market works best and in whom?" the lead author of the study, Dr. Michael Hochman, said in a news release. "Are certain diets and exercise regimens as good as medications for controlling cholesterol? Is it safe to aim for normal blood sugar levels when treating patients with diabetes? These are questions that comparative effectiveness studies should address."

The big difference, of course, is that comparative effectiveness studies usually don't have the potential to earn any private entity tons of bucks. Such studies could, however, reduce consumer healthcare costs in a big way. We'll be waiting for the results of $1.1 billion in funding for such studies that has been issued as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: An active medication and a placebo pill. Photo credit: Spencer Weiner  /  Los Angeles Times