When the Numbers Lie:
The Myth of Drug Statistics

If you take any sort of medication, it might interest you to learn what its NNT is. This acronym stands for the “number needed to treat,” essentially a ratio that tells you the number of people who need to take a medication for one person to see a benefit. The perfect scenario would see one person treated, one person benefitted. This would be an NNT of one.

A higher NNT would mean that fewer people saw benefits in the trial group, or that more people in the control group saw benefits without taking the medication, or both. The higher the number, the less effective the medication is assumed to be.

The NNT could also be negative, meaning that the medication or intervention actually caused more harm than reported by those in the control group.

Let’s look at a real-world example using one of the most common drugs on the market, a cholesterol lowering medication called Atorvastatin. After a 3.3-year drug trial, a 36 percent reduction in heart attacks was reported. Sounds great, right? This was the relative risk reduction (RRR), meaning the number of people in the trial group who still had heart attacks was 36 percent smaller than those in the control group who had heart attacks.

As you might imagine, that’s only part of the story. By another measure known as the absolute risk reduction (ARR), each individual person taking that drug had only a 1.02 percent reduction in their risk of a heart attack. The NNT is an inverse of this number, so you would have to treat 98 people for 3.3 years to prevent one heart attack!

Do you feel lucky?

Let’s use a hypothetical example to show how statistics can be used to manipulate you. Imagine a particular cancer that affects 2 percent of people without any treatment. A new drug comes along that lowers this risk to 1 percent. It is completely true to say that this drug cuts your risk of cancer by 50 percent. On the other hand, you could also say that your risk of cancer is 200 percent greater if you don’t take the drug. These are relative risks. The absolute risk reduction is only 1 percent, while the NNT is 100. But it makes a bigger psychological impact to cite a 50 percent lower risk or a 200 percent greater risk. This is why we say, “Stats don’t lie, but statisticians do.”

This is a classic example of reductionist thinking in the medical world. Medical doctors, in general, want to do one simple thing the same way every time, and prescribing pills is as easy as it gets. They hope that this time it will work on this patient, while knowing that it will actually work on only one out of 98 patients. The other 97 are stuck paying for a pill that they don’t need—a pill that may be harming them more than helping them.

We don’t work that way in our office. We can’t work that way! We depend on word-of-mouth referrals way too much for us to be satisfied succeeding with just 1 percent of our patients. Plus, because we aren’t in network with any insurance carriers, our patients are financially invested in their care. If they don’t see results, they’re gone.

We pride ourselves on giving all of our patients exceptional care that is individualized to their needs, allowing their body to work better, heal better, and feel better. Through specific and gentle chiropractic care and customized nutritional healing with Nutrition Response Testing, we are confident that we can improve your health in meaningful ways.

The medical world wants to medicate everyone from the outside-in with drugs that help only a small number of people. But we know that healing can only happen from the inside-out. Our only job is to remove the interference and supply the right building materials.

This is why we know that at Inside Health, health comes from inside.

Images from iStock/amenic181 (main), marchmeena29 (post).

Dr. David Kolowski

Dr. David Kolowski is a chiropractor, speaker, and author in Loveland, Colorado. His booklet The Night Before Wellness gives the Big Idea of natural healthcare to readers young and old. Dr. Kolowski describes his mission as helping people ask better questions while seeing the bigger picture. You can find him at Inside Health.

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