What World Cup Match Statistics Can Teach Us About Medical Research Results

Published on
June 28, 2010

When playing soccer - football to most of the world - it is good to possess the ball. But possession isn't enough. Even children scrimmaging in street games understand that all that really counts is scoring.

Yet that basic understanding of the distinction between something that may help you achieve a goal, and the goal itself, too often seems to be forgotten when we hear medical news headlines or the claims in drug ads.

Frequently we hear grand announcements about a drug that lowers cholesterol or blood pressure or some other lab test result. And while those lab values can be extremely valuable for researchers who are trying to evaluate an experimental drug, or for doctors and patients who want to know how well a treatment is working, we may begin to confuse the lab test values with real health outcomes; such as heart attacks or strokes or even death. Those hard outcomes are the ones we care about - they are the events that change lives. The lab results are information that are often called intermediate or surrogate endpoints. This information can help us try to improve our odds.

In this video, I take a look at statistics posted by Fifa.com to examine the relationship between the intermediate endpoint of ball possession and the ultimate goal of well scoring goals.

Next time you see a slick drug ad or blaring headline that extols the power of a product to improve cholesterol; or blood pressure; or other lab test result, ask yourself (and maybe your doctor), ‘What about the real goal? What's the evidence that this drug can actually help me be healthier or live longer?'