Interview with James McCormack: Busting Medical Myths

Puedes leer esta entrevista en castellano aquí.

When I first saw “Bohemian Polypharmacy” video, a parody of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” song, highlighting the problems of overtreatment, I immediately thought that it was an extremely smart and fresh way to disseminate important information in a friendly but precise manner.

McCormackBehind this, and several similar other videos is James McCormack, Pharmacy Professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Apart from research and teaching, as a tenured Professor, he strongly feels that part of his duty as an academic is to disseminate knowledge using evidence-based medicine and rational drug use principles, and this is precisely what he has been doing for over 25 years. A former member of the Therapeutics Initiative, in 2008 he founded the Therapeutics Education Collaboration with the aim of providing healthcare professionals with evidence-based practical and useful information for their day-to-day clinical practice in a format they would find appealing. Since then, he has co-hosted with Dr. Michael Allan, GP and Professor at the University of Alberta, more than 250 episodes of a very popular weekly podcast called the Best Science (BS) Medicine podcast and developed some other useful tools. Interested? You can follow his work on YouTube, iTunes and Twitter.

James McCormack has been kind enough to spare some time with us to answer a few questions.

-Laura Diego (L.D.): Which are your three main concerns with current drug therapy?

-James McCormack (J.M.): I would say the three biggest issues are surrogate markers, targets and starting doses.

-L.D.: What worries you about surrogate markers?

-J.M.: The main issues with surrogate markers such as blood pressure, HbA1c, and LDLc, is that we treat to lower them sometimes with minimal if any evidence on how these drugs perform on the important endpoints, such as cardiovascular disease or mortality. When we are looking at surrogate markers, the evidence seems to be fairly clear for big numbers of glucose and blood pressure. So treating a systolic blood pressure of >190 mmHg is likely reasonable, however there is no clear evidence of benefit of treating systolic blood pressures between 140-150 mmHg.

-L.D.: ¿And about targets?

-J.M.: With surrogate markers it seems guidelines often come across as the lower the better, as if you could never be too low. Some people may not be aware that for example there is not a single clinical study randomizing people to different LDLc levels and seeing if that changes important outcomes. Additionally, over the last 5 years or so, 20 large well-designed clinical studies of new/old treatments for surrogates or aggressive lowering of surrogates have been published. None of them showed a benefit and in some cases there was harm. Unfortunately it is often believed that you can treat anything and reduce the risk to almost zero, and that is not true.

-L.D.: Starting doses how can this be a problem?

-J.M.: In my experience, the recommended starting doses in books such as the Canadian Pharmaceuticals and Specialties or the Physician Drug Reference are much higher than is necessary for many people.

-L.D.: I am sure some readers are surprised, how can this be possible?

-J.M.: The reason behind this is that manufacturers have to test the drug at doses high enough to make sure they get the desired effect. Some people would have responded to smaller doses but this is hard to predict in advance and once the drug is approved the studied dose goes directly to the drug monograph. A quarter, a half or even an eighth of that dose would most likely have worked in a similar fashion for many people, but we often only find out about it many years after the drug is marketed.

-L.D.: What would you recommend then?

-J.M.: My advice would be that unless you are about to die, you should start with a low dose and see how it goes. Considering there is no rush and that many conditions improve on their own, try half or a quarter of the recommended starting dose and then escalate if you do not get an effect. Another approach could be to start at standard doses and once you get an effect titrate it backwards, however, experience tell us that many people don’t do this in clinical practice.

-L.D.: Is there anything we can do fix these drug therapy problems you just mentioned?

-J.M.: First of all I think it is essential that health care providers need to be aware of what is the real magnitude of the benefit of treatments, but also of the risks it involves, so that they can discuss this with their patient’s and help them make a decision about whether they want to have a treatment or not. Thus, we need to educate both patients and health care providers on these issues and give them the appropriate tools to start a discussion on what is in the best interest of each individual patient.

-LD.:  Seems you advocate for patients shared-decision making…?

-J.M.: Absolutely.

-L.D.:  Is shared-decision making a reality in Canada?

-J.M.: It‘s getting better but it’s not happening as much as I would like it to happen. Nonetheless over the last years I have seen a big change away from paternalistic medicine and I really think shared-decision making (SDM) is starting to kick in. I always assume that a part of the population, maybe 30-40%, may not be willing to engage in SDM, and it is legitimate wanting someone to take decisions for you. This is absolutely fine with me. However, we have to admit that the rest of the population may be interested in participating in the decisions about their treatment, they have their own preferences and here I would say the main resistance comes from health care providers being reluctant to give up the power of making the decision.

-L.D.: Always?

-J.M.: Well, in an emergency situation it may not make sense to go through the whole SDM process, but in the chronic conditions there is no hurry. SDM is appropriate for those conditions where there is uncertainty about the outcomes and I would say that is basically everything.

-L.D.: Let’s now change topic. What it is exactly the Therapeutic Education Collaboration?

-J.M.: We are a group of four people, pharmacists and doctors, that share the common interests of providing health care professionals with evidence-based, practical and relevant information on rational drug therapy and at the same time encourage them to think critically and exercise some degree of healthy scepticism. Ours is a very loose collaboration though Dr. Michael Allan, the GP with whom I host the weekly podcast, also leads a fantastic group developing Tools for Practice and other educational activities and I collaborate a lot with them.

-L.D.: You define the Therapeutics Education Collaboration as mythbusters of drug therapy. Please, share with us three myths we should never fall for…

-J.M.: I am going to give you some good ones. [laughs] Let’s start with suppositories. They are usually recommended to be inserted tapered end first, however the best evidence, from a study published in The Lancet, says that if you insert it the other way it is easier to insert and it stays in better. The second one is about antibiotics, once you start a treatment you are usually told you have to take it until all the pills have been taken and this probably not right. If you have an infection that is not life threatening, such as respiratory tract infections or soft tissue infections etc. the best evidence suggests you start taking antibiotics and once you have not had symptoms for 2-3 days it is fine to stop them. And the last one is that when treating BP, cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, health care providers often think most people will benefit, while the truth is that the vast majority of people don’t benefit when it comes to decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease with medications.

-L.D.: In your opinion the key to effective drug therapy education for healthcare professionals is…

-J.M.: I think there are three important things. First of all, it has to be concise, clear and simple and, if possible, entertaining. From my experience with podcasting, I can say that conversations between two people work much better than a single speaker. Secondly we have to create tools that are evidence based and easy to use that allows health care professionals to make an estimate of the benefit and harm of therapies. And last but not least, I think it is essential that we say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” more often than we do.

-L.D.: Does humour help to spread the message?

-J.M.: The bottom line is that it does not hurt. I put an effort into making any education I do clever, simple and entertaining and most people seem to like this. EBM can be a bit dull so if you can make it fun, even better.

-L.D.: How did you come up with the idea of mixing music and EBM?

-J.M.: To be honest I don’t remember exactly … I wanted to create messages that weren’t boring and I love music, I guess it just came up naturally. Music links into emotions and I think it helps you connect with people. If I can get somebody to listen to a message through music that they had not listened to before, that makes me very happy.

-L.D.: Researcher, Professor and now a singer?

-J.M.: There are currently 7 music videos out there and I only sing on two of them. They are actually the least popular ones! [laughs]. This is why I am so lucky to work with a couple of great singers, Liam Styles Chang and Shae Scotten from a band called Aivia who absolutely nail the vocals and give the videos a very professional feel.

-L.D.: Your “Choosing Wisely” video reached more than 50.000 views around the world in a couple of months and “Viva la Evidence” has had more than 80.000 views. There is no doubt that healthcare professionals love them. Have you thought about doing something similar addressed to patients?

-J.M.: It is true that my work is mainly addressed at healthcare professionals, but I don’t think it is just for them. As we discussed before, I try to give clear and simple messages such that everybody can understand them. Some of my talks, for example the one on Tom Hanks & type 2 Diabetes, have been presented to the public and they seem to understand it. I also know that many members of the lay public have seen my music videos, for example “Choosing Wisely”, as I constantly get questions about them.

-L.D.: Can you give us a hint on what new parody you are working on…? Or will we have to wait?

-J.M.: [Laughs] For now all I can tell you is that I am working on something related to the Mediterranean diet and the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”.

-L.D.: Finally, how does social media fit in the dissemination of evidence-based information?

-J.M.: I would say social media is key and has a huge potential for the dissemination of knowledge. All that we have talked about would have been unimaginable 10 or so years ago. Then we used to just have medical journals and lectures, but now with YouTube, Twitter and podcasting you can reach anybody. There is so much information out there now that the problem is trying to figure out the good ones. The question now is, can you provide good enough information in a way that people will come to you?

Interview by Laura Diego


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