The study was done meticulously, as far as I can see. It was a large Medicaid database from Tennessee (this may present a generalizability problem, of course, though I cannot think of a specific reason why it would). The study design was a retrospective cohort, which, as we already know, sets the study up for all kinds of biases. So, why should we believe anything the study showed? And particularly given many people's distaste for invoking causality from observational data?
There are at least 2 reasons why we should pay attention to these results. The first is that we are talking about the ultimate harm: death. When it comes to harm, my philosophical approach leans in the direction of caution. What this means scientifically is that I accept a much lower threshold for the certainty that the data convey than when it comes to evidence of benefit. This is an extension of the precautionary principle, where the burden of proof of safety now lies with the drug.
But there is a second, possibly more important reason that I am inclined to believe the data. The reason is called succinctly "propensity scoring." This is the technique that the investigators used to adjust away as much as feasible the possibility that factors other than the exposure to the drug caused the observed effect. In my book I briefly discuss propensity scoring in Chapter 21. And here is what I say:
Propensity scoring is gaining popularity as an adjustment method in the medical literature. A propensity score is essentially a number, usually derived from a regression analysis, describing the propensity of each subject for a particular exposure. So, in terms of smoking, we can create a propensity score based on other common characteristics that predict smoking. We take advantage of the presence of some of these characteristics also in people who are non-smokers to yield a similar propensity score in the absence of this exposure. In turn, the outcome of interest can be adjusted in several ways for the propensity for smoking. One common way is to match smokers to non-smokers based on the same (or similar) propensity scores and then examine their respective outcomes. This allows us to understand the independent impact of smoking on, say, the development of coronary artery disease.And if you are able to access Table 1 of the paper, you will see that their propensity matching was spectacularly successful. So, although it does not eliminate the possibility that something unobserved or unmeasured is causing this increase in deaths, the meticulous methods used lower the probability of this.
One final word about azithromycin. There are data that suggest that macrolides (the class of drugs that includes erythromycin, clarithromycin and azithromycin) are actually associated with improved outcomes in the setting of community-acquired pneumonia, or CAP. This is why these drugs are in the CAP treatment guideline. The point is that again, as in everything, the benefit of using azithromycin in any individual case will have to be weighed against this newly-identified risk.
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