U-M study finds physicians may not fully consider cardiovascular risks when prescribing statins

Michael E. Johansen, M.D.

Physicians may not fully consider cardiovascular risks when prescribing medications to lower patients’ cholesterol levels, according to a new University of Michigan Health System study that appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine this week.

Using a survey, the research team asked more than 200 physicians to make choices on the treatment of six different patients that they might consider treating for high cholesterol. Statins such as Lipitor, Crestor, and Zocor have become a widely-used method to lower cholesterol levels. In 2010 around 20 billion dollars was spent on statins.

“We found that physicians may be treating low-risk patients with statin medications that are unlikely to benefit,” says lead author Michael E. Johansen, M.D., clinical lecturer in the Department of Family Medicine in the U-M Medical School.

Further, though statin therapy has been shown to benefit diabetic patients even if they have low LDL levels, most surveyed physicians didn’t recommend medication for diabetics if their LDL was below the level set by guidelines.

“It was disheartening to find that many patients with diabetes may not be receiving a treatment with big health benefits,” says Johansen.

Last month, statins came under the spotlight when the FDA announced it would require additional safety warnings on the labels of cholesterol lowering drugs. These warnings will highlight the risk for cognitive side effects such as memory loss and confusion.

With more than 20 million Americans taking statins, they have become among the most widely prescribed drugs on the market, largely used as primary prevention for heart disease. Amidst the new labeling requirements by the FDA and the findings of this recent study, it may prove useful to further re-examine physician prescribing practices for these medications.