Information Can Change Medical Practice, Patient Behaviors, and Kill Kids

Medical information can change how clinicians treat patients, how patients care for themselves, and how healthcare payers promote or prevent the use of treatments and diagnostic tests. However, this information can act as either a broad sword or a scalpel, and produce good or bad outcomes.

A recent report from a Canadian new service about an article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal describing the outcomes from warning about the use of anti-depressants in children brings this issue down from a general concept to being very specific. This news report stated:

Two years after Health Canada warned about prescribing anti-depressants to children, the number of children and teens who died by suicide increased 25 per cent after years of steady decline, major new Canadian research shows.

And the increased suicide rate coincided with a 10-per-cent decrease in the rate of visits to doctors for the treatment of depression in children.

For the study, researchers tracked what happened in Manitoba before and after Health Canada warned in 2004 that newer antidepressants may be associated with an increased risk of “suicide-related” events in patients under 18.

They found the warning was followed by an overall 14-per-cent drop in antidepressant use among children and adolescents, fewer visits to doctors for depression, and – among eight- to 17-year-olds – increased rates of completed suicide.

More than 90 per cent of the children and teens who killed themselves were not taking antidepressants when they died.

Published Tuesday in the journal of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the study is the first to document “such a wide range of unintended health consequences” from a major drug warning, the authors say.

Lead author Dr. Laurence Katz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Winnipeg, warns the increased risk of suicide could be a “random fluctuation.”

“We can’t say the warning, or the change in antidepressant use or the physician office visits caused changes in suicide rates,” says Katz.

The suicide rate among children and teens was also still relatively small, from 0.04 for every 1,000 children and adolescents before the warning, to 0.15 per 1,000 after.

But Katz worries the widely publicized drug warnings have led to more cases of untreated depression, and an impact “beyond what was intended.” The drop in doctors visits for depression suggests that some vulnerable children are getting no treatment, including psychotherapy, at all. He says his hunch is that families were afraid to go to the doctor for fear their child would be put on medication.

“But that’s not the only treatment for depression. Not going to the doctor deprives you of all forms of treatment.”

If anything, researchers expected office visits to go up after the warning was issued because physicians were urged to increase the monitoring of patients for potential adverse reactions.

Katz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, says the drug warnings and media response may have “generated a lot of fear.”

“Understandably parents who kept bringing their children, their teenagers in for troubles with depression were already struggling, and fearful (and) often appropriately cautious about whether their child or teenager should be put on a medication.”

Katz believes the findings could be applied to any Canadian jurisdiction. Other studies coming out of the U.S. are showing similar results. [Emphasis added]

The antidepressant warning involved drugs known as SSRIs, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, a class that includes Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, as well as serotonin noradrenaline re-uptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which include Effexor. The drugs have not been approved in Canada for children, but doctors have prescribed them “off-label,” which they are legally permitted to do, to tens of thousands of toddlers, children and teens for depression, social phobia, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

In 2003 the U.K. banned antidepressants for children. The only exception was Prozac. Studies have shown the drug is safe and effective in children.

A year later, Health Canada warned that people taking the newer-generation antidepressants may experience behaviour or emotional changes that may put them “at increased risk of self-harm or harm to others.”

Katz says he didn’t have a problem with the warnings themselves. But he says some people leaped to the assumption “that these medications lead people to kill themselves.”

[The report also notes that, “For young adults, there was no significant change in the rate of completed suicide.”]

Obviously, the outcomes found in this study are very worrisome, but it also a too dramatic example of the principle of unintended consequences.

It also reminds me of how a news story in the early 1990s about adverse reactions with the second medicine to treat AIDS.  This news report caused many AIDS patients to stop taking the medicine, and given that there was only one other medicine to treat AIDS, this certainly wasn’t a good thing for their long-term survival

Although correlations don’t prove causations, I think this study definitely underscores the importance of healthcare regulators – and their media colleagues – carefully considering how they present new health information and notices to the public – for both good findings or dire warnings. With all the proposals to empower patients to make their own decisions through consumer directed insurance plan, and to give people more health information, there should also be much more research into how people respond to health related information delivered in different forms from various sources.

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