In January, I blogged about an open letter by Harlan Krumholz and Rodney Hayward to the panel that is currently engaged in writing new guidelines for cholesterol management. As discussed in my post, their letter challenges the committee to replace the current “treat to target” paradigm with a “tailored treatment” approach. This has been one of my more popular posts of all time, and people often find my blog by Googling “Krumholz Hayward open letter” and the like. It also has been discussed on CardioExchange. So I knew their paper had created a bit of a buzz in the cardiology community. Well, it appears that some in that community are not happy that someone is challenging the current paradigm. Dr. Krumholz reports on CardioExchange that he was approached by an influential person and asked to stop speaking out on the new approach he is advocating:
I had an experience the other week that reminded me that speaking your mind has its challenges. I was approached by someone with influence who asked me to cease my discussions on a particular topic. The reason was oblique – and I was told that people are viewing me negatively because my views are strong and wondering if there are conflicts of interest that are influencing me. In essence, I was told that people are whispering about me – though no names were given.
Now this topic was part of a scientific debate that has strong implications for guidelines and performance measures – and, well, patients. It is a situation where I am questioning conventional wisdom – and the long held beliefs by many individuals. I am trying to do so respectfully – and through the use of evidence – but still it is questioning dogma.
This conversation prompted me to write a message to my younger colleagues urging them to stand up for what they believe – and be willing to speak truth to power. I quote my friend Victor Montori, who eloquently advised a junior colleague about how to manage a concern about whether to express an opinion that was likely to be viewed negatively by her superiors. That person had been told to hold opinions tight until he had more grey hair. Victor starts by saying: ‘I have struggled with this issue for years. Turns out that this is a common struggle for those who find themselves unable to stay silent in the face of waste, error, low integrity, or abuse.’
The message Dr. Krumholz wrote is in the form of an editorial in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, entitled “A Note to My Younger Colleagues … Be Brave.” The editorial is open access, so I urge you to go read it in its entirety, but I’m going to quote this paragraph, which seems key:
If you take the path toward clarity, I guarantee that you will occasionally find people who will disparage you. They may seek to undermine you, find ways to marginalize you, and try to incriminate you. They may come from directions that surprise you. Powerful ideas often attract attacks that focus more on individuals than ideas. If you raise inconvenient truths or voice uncomfortable opinions, particularly if they threaten someone’s comfortable status quo, then you will discover much about the character of those with whom you disagree. But always take the high road, engage in dialogue about ideas and evidence, and be motivated by the opportunity to best serve patients and the public. You will not regret it.
Although I am not a physician, I certainly recognize and have experienced the issues Dr. Krumholz is describing in my own life. Speaking uncomfortable truths often isn’t considered nice and doesn’t win popularity contests, but it is necessary for progress to be made. So I will keep covering this controversy, and I invite you to read Dr. Krumholz’s editorial and then let me know your thoughts.
Addendum: Here are comments by Ben Goldacre on Dr. Krumholz’s editorial.
Qnexa, a combination of phentermine and topiramate, is a proposed anti-obesity medication. Although clinical trials demonstrate that Qnexa can lead to an approximately 10% weight loss, an FDA advisory committee recommended against approval in 2010 because of safety concerns (an increased risk of cleft lip and palette and increased heart rate, which could increase the cardiovascular risk). On February 22, 2012, an FDA advisory committee voted 20-2 in favor of approval, based on an additional submission by the sponsor, Vivus Inc.
In a commentary in Annals of Internal Medicine, Michael Lauer of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute explains why he voted against recommending approval. Briefly, he discusses how the small pre-approval trials conducted by the sponsor, and the small number (12) of major cardiovascular events that occurred during those trials, give us insufficient information to determine whether Qnexa increases the risk of cardiovascular events. Qnexa is thus like a used car that could be either a “lemon” or a “peach.” In addition, based on prior experiences with obesity medications that were withdrawn from the market due to cardiovascular effects, we have reason to be concerned about an obesity medication that increases heart rate (consider the case of Meridia, previously discussed on this blog here and here). Finally, the sponsor’s argument that certain improved biomarkers, such as blood pressure and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, outweigh any effect of the increased heart rate, fails to assuage his concerns given the failure of surrogates in the past. He states that “We cannot assume that just because a drug reduces weight and improves some biomarkers that it will be safe, let alone beneficial.” I completely agree. Here is his conclusion, but his commentary is open access, so I urge you to read it in full:
So what to do? We can resolve the information asymmetry by insisting on a large-scale, preapproval cardiovascular outcomes trial of Qnexa. It would be too risky to rely on postapproval surveillance or to hope that a rigorous trial could be conducted in a timely manner. If Qnexa prevents cardiovascular events, or at least doesn’t increase the risk for them, in a preapproval trial, then we will all know that we have the peach we’ve been waiting for.
Hayward and Krumholz: Open Letter to the Adult Treatment Panel IV of the National Institutes of Health
Rodney Hayward and Harlan Krumholz have published an open letter to the committee that is currently engaged in writing updated guidelines for cardiovascular risk reduction. Their letter challenges the committee to replace the current “treat to target” paradigm with a “tailored treatment” approach, as discussed below.
The primary focus of the current set of guidelines, ATP III , was a strategy of treating patients to target LDL-cholesterol levels, known as the “treat to target” paradigm. Moreover, the “cutpoints,” or triggers, for initiating therapy are also based on LDL levels, with higher risk patients having lower cutpoints. However, as Hayward, Krumholz and colleagues have previously argued (see here, here and here), the treat to target paradigm was not based on the results of clinical trials, since no major randomized controlled trial has tested the benefits of treating patients to LDL targets. Rather, the trials have used fixed doses of lipid-lowering drugs.
Hayward and Krumholz argue that LDL levels are not particularly useful in assessing the 2 factors that help determine the benefit of a treatment for an individual patient: (1) risk of morbidity and mortality in the absence of treatment (baseline risk) and (2) the degree to which the treatment reduces that risk. For calculating baseline risk, LDL is only one of several factors that are considered, including age, gender, smoking, blood pressure, HDL, and family history of premature cardiovascular disease and in most cases contributes little to the estimate of cardiovascular risk. For the second factor, clinical trials of statins demonstrate that the relative benefits of statins are not substantially related to pretreatment LDL levels. Thus, a high risk person may have low LDL levels and a low risk person may have high LDL levels and the high risk person will derive more absolute benefit more from treatment even though his or her LDL is low (illustrated in this table).
Hayward and Krumholz also argue that treating to LDL targets can lead to treatments that have not been shown to be safe. The treat to target approach can mean initiating treatment in patients at a relatively young age, leading to potentially many years of statin treatment. The long-term safety of this approach is not yet known. In addition, the perceived need to reach an LDL target often leads to the addition of nonstatin drugs such as niacin and ezetimibe when the maximum dose of a statin is reached and the patient’s LDL is still above goal. The benefit and safety of adding these drugs on top of statin therapy has not yet been demonstrated.
The “tailored treatment” approach Hayward and Krumholz advocate bases intensity of statin treatment on a person’s 5- or 10-year cardiovascular risk. In a previous paper, Hayward et al. tested a tailored treatment model of primary prevention using 5-year coronary artery disease (CAD) risk and compared it with the treat to target approach. In their model, a person with 5% to 15% risk would be prescribed 40 mg simvastatin and a person with greater than 15% risk would be prescribed 40 mg atorvastatin. Using this simulated model, the tailored treatment approach was found to prevent more CAD events while treating fewer persons with high-dose statins as compared to the treat to target approach.
For the reasons stated above, the tailored treatment approach does appear to me to be superior to the treat to target approach. At the same time, I note that the decision to take a statin is a personal decision. For primary prevention, the absolute benefit for most people of taking a statin over a 5 or 10 year period is small. Each person should calculate their baseline risk (there are online risk calculators for this), look at how much their risk can be lowered with a statin, and ask themselves if the benefit seems worth it to them in terms of cost, inconvenience and possible side effects (including a small increase in risk of developing diabetes).
In addition, I note that neither approach is designed to apply to patients with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). Due to the very high risk of premature coronary heart disease in FH patients (approximately 85% of male FH patients and 50% of female FH patients will suffer a coronary event by age 65 if untreated), the treatment paradigm for FH patients is that all are treated with statins starting in childhood or early adulthood (not everyone agrees that it is necessary to start treatment in childhood but that’s a topic for another day). In other words, FH patients are treated based on their lifetime risk, not their 5- or 10-year risk.
Hayward RA, Krumholz HM. Three reasons to abandon low-density lipoprotein targets: an open letter to the Adult Treatment Panel IV of the National Institutes of Health. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2012:5;2-5.
Hayward RA, Hofer TP, Vijan S. Narrative review: lack of evidence for recommended low-density lipoprotein treatment targets: a solvable problem. Ann Intern Med. 2006;145:520-530.
Krumholz HM, Hayward RA. Shifting views on lipid lowering therapy. BMJ. 2010;341:c3531.
Hayward RA, Krumholz HM, Zulman DM, Timbie JW, Vijan S. Optimizing statin treatment for primary prevention of coronary artery disease. Ann Intern Med. 2010;152:69-77.
Rind DM. Intensity of lipid lowering therapy in secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. In: Freeman MW, Sokol HN, eds. UpToDate. 19.3 ed.