Well documented problems exist in the funding and prioritisation of research, the conduct of trials, the withholding of results, the dissemination of evidence, and its implementation with patients. Here we briefly examine six domains where the academy could call for simple practical improvements that would address legitimate concerns.
Publication bias—We conduct trials to detect modest differences, and spend vast amounts of money specifically to exclude bias, yet we allow that bias to flood back in through selective publication.3 4 Eminent bodies writing reports will not fix this, but practical action will. We need new funding for simple systematic work to audit which trials are unreported, to highlight the best and worst performers, and to shine a light on withheld studies.5
Independent trials—A recent cohort study found that 97% of head to head trials sponsored by industry give results that favour the sponsor’s drug.6 Doctors and patients are right to want independent trials. On statins and oseltamivir, there are two clear opportunities, and here we declare our own conflicts. With colleagues, one of us (CH) first proposed a trial of oseltamivir in a pandemic in 2009; the other (BG) first proposed a trial of statins examining side effects over a year ago. In both cases we could have the answer by now.
Cost of trials—Replication will be possible only if the cost of conducting trials is radically reduced. Much of this cost is driven by disproportionate regulation around trials of routinely used treatments.7 The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s guidance on cholesterol argues for head to head trials in low risk populations; this would require over 100 000 participants, followed up for a decade. Such trials can practically be delivered only by reducing the expensive and disproportionate regulatory burden,7 embedding them in everyday clinical care and gathering follow-up data from existing electronic health records.8
Better evidence—Treatments are routinely approved after trials with only surrogate outcomes.9 Drugs are then extensively promoted, at the moment of approval, when evidence on real world outcomes is paradoxically at its weakest. We could encourage better evidence by, for example, compelling companies to follow-up all phase III trial participants until real world benefits emerge, considering routine randomisation for newly approved drugs when benefits are unclear, and bartering with either patent extension or choice of the start date for market exclusivity. These suggestions would come at minimal cost and deliver more comprehensive data on treatment effects.
Shared decision making—Concern over statins has recently been reawakened by the introduction of a financial incentive for general practitioners to prescribe the drugs to low risk patients. This is ill judged because patients’ informed choices vary widely.10 11 An incentive to prescribe a treatment that many adequately informed patients do not want undermines informed decision making and inflicts avoidable reputational harm on the profession. If instead we incentivise shared decision making then—for the same financial outlay—best practice will be recognised, rewarded, and laid down in the everyday templates of what doctors do.12
Declare conflicts of interest—Declaration of conflicts of interest is currently chaotic, inconsistent, and incomplete. We clearly need a central system of declarations, ideally maintained by the General Medical Council.13 Conflicts, however, become particularly salient when evidence is unclear: when decisions about which treatment works best are made on the basis of a speculative, superficially plausible narrative about a drug’s mechanism of action, or on the interpretation of weak, confounded, observational data when randomised trials are feasible. If we are able to generate better evidence and ensure that we see the complete evidence, then competing interests—although they must always be declared—will become less salient.
By Ben Goldacre