Flu season and Tamiflu – which one’s more hyped?

by Joseph Paduda

First Posted at Managed Care Matters on 01/15/2013

Joe Paduda, Principal, Health Strategy Associate

It’s full-on panic mode; flu season is upon us, the media’s in a frenzy, and the world is coming to an end.  If you didn’t get your shot, you’re going to be in serious trouble, laid up for weeks with a nasty case of the horribles if not stuck in a hospital ER with tubes dangling from your appendages.

To listen/watch the media, you’d think the Mayans were right about the end of the world, if not precise with the timing or cause of earth’s demise. Then again, this is what (much of) the media does – generate eyeballs/ears by getting us all excited about something or other.  Now that the most recent fiscal crisis is a distant memory, there’s got to be something to get us riled up – so flu it is.

Unfortunately the sensationalism isn’t limited to the illness itself; the enthusiasm for Tamiflu, the equivalent of the mining-after pill for flu sufferers, is similarly hyped.

Through a combination of carefully-orchestrated clinical trials, precisely-written journal articles, and professionally-managed media placement, the makers of Tamiflu have been able to convince many of the drug’s powerful ability to moderate the effects and shorten the duration of the illness. Sounds like a no-brainer, except…

Except the reality is nowhere near as encouraging.  Turns out Tamiflu actually only shortens duration by a day or so, and while it can moderate the worst of the symptoms, isn’t going to get you up and going in no time.  Here’s what the Cochrane Collaboration, perhaps the world’s leading analysts of medical research and intervention concluded after reviewing the research behind Tamiflu:

1. The manufacturer of the drug sponsored all the trials and the reviewers found evidence of publication and reporting biases.

2. The studies did not show that Tamiflu (oseltamivir) reduced the risk of hospitalization.

3. The studies were inadequate to determine the effect of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) on complications.

4. The studies were inadequate to determine if Tamiflu (oseltamivir)  reduced transmission of the virus.

5. The use of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) did reduce the duration of symptoms by about a day.

I bring this to your attention, dear reader, not to scare you even more, but rather toencourage you to learn more about medical miracles/drugs/treatments before signing up.  If you don’t, you may well find yourself poorer, just as sick, and perhaps with a few side effects you hadn’t counted on.

Thanks to Gary Schwitzer at Health News Review for the tip; his blog is a must-read for those seeking the real story behind the mass media’s health hype of the moment.

Patricia Salber MD, MBA (@docweighsin)
Patricia Salber, MD, MBA is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Doctor Weighs In. She is also the CEO of Health Tech Hatch, the sister site of TDWI that helps innovators tell their stories to the world. She is also a physician executive who has worked in all aspects of healthcare including practicing emergency physician, health plan executive, consultant to employers, CMS, and other organizations. She is a Board Certified Internist and Emergency Physician who loves to write about just about anything that has to do with healthcare.

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