1: Isn’t anything worth trying when a patient has a life-threatening condition?

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It can be tempting to want to try the latest ‘wonder-drug’, or follow the example of some high-profile celebrity who has made claims in the popular press about a treatment regimen that they’ve followed, perhaps involving ‘alternative’ medicine that has been well-marketed but not tested.

Mainstream treatments can seem much less glamorous and promising, but most that are being used for life-threatening conditions will have been painstakingly tested to find out how effective and how safe they are.

So, seeking out the best evidence at the start can save much time, heartache, and money.

Mainstream medicine, generally speaking, recognizes that there are degrees of uncertainty about the effectiveness and safety of the medicines on offer. It aims to reduce those uncertainties to an acceptable level by testing, and by constantly and systematically reviewing the evidence to improve the treatments on offer.

Such improvements depend critically on the help of patients who come to see that this is the only way to make solid progress. Understandably, patients with life-threatening conditions can be desperate to try anything, including untested ‘treatments’.

But it is far better for them to consider enrolling in a suitable clinical trial in which a new treatment is being compared with the current best treatment. Such a comparison will not only reveal what extra benefits the new treatment might bring, but also what harms it might cause.

Life-threatening conditions can need powerful treatments – and there is no treatment that does not have some side-effects. This makes it all the more important that a new treatment is tested thoroughly and fairly so that the findings can be recorded in a systematic way to see whether it is really likely to help patients.

Next2: Although patients might want to know if a treatment ‘works’, suppose they don’t want all the details?