Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Risk, Odds, Hazard...More on The Language

For every 100 g of processed meat people eat, they are 16% more likely to develop colorectal cancer during their lives. For asthma sufferers, the odds of suffering an attack for those who took dupilumab in a recent trial were reduced 87% over a placebo. What does all this mean, and how do we contextualize it? What is risk, and how does it differ from hazard? Truthfully, there's several ways to compare the effects of an exposure to some drug or substance, and the only one that's entirely intuitive is the one that you're least likely to encounter unless you read the results section of a study.

When you see statistics like those above, and pretty much every story revealing results of a study in public health will have them, each way of comparing risk elicits a different kind of reaction in a reader. I'll go back to the prospective cohort study suggesting that vegetarians are 1/3rd less likely to suffer from ischemic heart disease (IHD) than those who eat meat, because I think it's such a great example of how widely the interpretations can seem based upon which metric you use. According to this study, IHD was a pretty rare event; only 2.7% out of over 44,500 individuals developed it at all. For the meat-eaters, 1.6% developed IHD vs. 1.1% in vegetarians. If you simply subtract 1.6% and 1.1%, you might intuitively sense that eating meat didn't really add that much risk. Another way of putting it is out of every 1,000 people, 16 people who eat meat will develop IHD vs. 11 for vegetarians. This could be meaningful if you were able to extrapolate these results to an entire population of say 300 million people, where 1.5 million less incidences of IHD would develop, but I think most epidemiologists would be very cautious in zooming out that far based upon one estimate from a single cohort study. Yet another way of looking at the effect is the "number needed to treat" (NNT), which refers to how many people would need to be vegetarian for one person to benefit. In this case, the answer is 20 200 (oops!). That means 199 people who decide to change their diet to cut out meat entirely wouldn't even benefit in terms of developing IHD during their lifetime.