Words, and the real world

As a researcher, I spend a lot of time writing. Manuscripts, responses to “provisional rejections,” grants, grant revisions, whatever. Even when we have an article come out, though, I often find myself thinking that I’ll be lucky if it gets read by two people and a gerbil, and that it’s likely it will have little effect on anyone, ever.

Last week, though, it felt a little different.

In 2010, our team published a study of just over 100,000 hospital admissions, showing that medications that suppress stomach acid seem to cause C. difficile in hospitalized patients.

Why is this important?  First, C. difficile is often a really disastrous, awful disease. Second, proton pump inhibitors are extraordinarily common medications. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 100 million prescriptions for proton pump inhibitors (a key class of acid-suppressive medications) at a cost of about $14 billion a year. About half of hospital inpatients (20 million/year) get these kinds of medicines each year.  Here’s the kicker: as best we could tell (with pretty careful methodology), patients who get proton pump inhibitors have a 70% greater risk of getting C. difficile while in the hospital. These findings are pretty consistent with what a number of other research teams have found.

Last week felt different because the Food and Drug Administration issued a drug safety alert about the association between proton pump inhibitors and the often-disastrous infection Clostridium difficile.  This got covered by the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Consumer Reports, Fox News, and MSNBC.

Sometimes, words do have an effect in the real world.

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