This excellent article in the UK Independent summarizes the premiss with some scathing comments from none other than GSK's chief geneticist, Dr. Allen Roses:
"The vast majority of drugs - more than 90 per cent - only work in 30 or 50 per cent of the people," Dr Roses said. "I wouldn't say that most drugs don't work. I would say that most drugs work in 30 to 50 per cent of people. Drugs out there on the market work, but they don't work in everybody."There is even a table presented with response rates by therapeutic area, though the reference(s) is(are) not cited, so, please, take with a grain of salt:
Therapeutic area: drug efficacy rate in per cent
- Alzheimer's: 30
- Analgesics (Cox-2): 80
- Asthma: 60
- Cardiac Arrythmias: 60
- Depression (SSRI): 62
- Diabetes: 57
- Hepatits C (HCV): 47
- Incontinence: 40
- Migraine (acute): 52
- Migraine (prophylaxis): 50
- Oncology: 25
- Rheumatoid arthritis: 50
- Schizophrenia: 60
Although “evidence-based medicine” has become the dominant paradigm for shaping clinical recommendations and guidelines, recent work demonstrates that many clinicians’ initial concerns about “evidence-based medicine” come from the very real incongruence between the overall effects of a treatment in a study population (the summary result of a clinical trial) and deciding what treatment is best for an individual patient given their specific condition, needs and desires (the task of the good clinician). The answer, however, is not to accept clinician or expert opinion as a replacement for scientific evidence for estimating a treatment’s efficacy and safety, but to better understand how the effectiveness and safety of a treatment varies across the patient population (referred to as heterogeneity of treatment effect [HTE]) so as to make optimal decisions for each patient.Ah, so it is not your imagination: when someone brings an evidence-based guideline to you, and insists that unless you comply 95% of the time, you are providing less than great quality of care, and you say "this does not represent my patients", you are actually not crazy. To be sure, a good EBPG will apply to most patients encountered with the particular condition. But the devil, of course is in the details. As I have already pointed out, we impose statistical principles onto data to whip it into submission. When we do a good job, we acknowledge the limitations of what measures of central tendency provide us with. But so much of the time I see physicians relying on the p value alone to compare the effects, that I am convinced that the variation around the center is mostly lost on us. And further, how does this variance help a clinician faced with an individual patient who has at best a probability of response on some continuum of a population of probabilities? And more importantly, what will this individual patient's risk-benefit balance be for a particular therapy?
I think what I am walking away with after thinking about this issue is that it is of utmost importance to understand what kind of data have gone into a recommendation. What is the degree of HTE in the known research, and specifically, what is known about the population that your patient represents. The less HTE and the more knowledge about the specific subgroups, the more confident you can be that the therapy will work. Ultimately, however, each patient is a universe onto herself, since no two people will share same genetics, environmental exposures, chronic condition profile or other treatments, to name just a few potential characteristics that may impact response to therapy.
This is the reason that we need better trials, where people are represented more broadly, leading to an increase in external validity. To make this information useful at the bedside, we need a priori plans to analyze many different subgroups, as that will give clinicians at least some granularity so desperately needed in the office. And while pharmacogenomics may be helpful, I am sure that it will not be the panacea for reducing all of this complexity to zero.
Until technology gives us a better way (assuming that it will), where possible, a systematic approach to treatment trials should be undertaken. Later I will blog about N of 1 trials, which, though not appropriate in every situation, may be quite helpful in optimizing treatment in some chronic conditions. With the advent of health IT, these trials may become less daunting and, in aggregate, provide some very useful generalizable information on what happens in the real world. Each clinician will need to take some ownership in advancing our collective understanding of the diseases s/he treats. This may truly be the disruptive innovation we are all looking for to improve the quality of care not just to please the bureaucrats, but to promote better health and quality of life.