March 27 (UPI) -- Many heart patients shy away from or aren't ever offered a common drug that could save their lives, a new study says.
More than half of patients who could benefit from statins say their doctors never offered them the drugs, even when they could use the cholesterol-lowering drug to treat their condition, according to findings published Wednesday in Journal of the American Heart Association.
"Statins are one of the most effective ways to lower someone's risk for heart disease, but many of the patients who should be taking a statin are not currently on one," Corey K. Bradley, a researcher at Duke University and study author, told UPI. "We wanted to better understand why. By understanding reasons for lack of statin use, we hoped to learn more targeted ways to improve the problem."
The researchers surveyed more than 5,693 people at an average age of 68 who were listed in a registry of patients receiving cardiology, endocrinology practice or primary care. Just over 1,500 of them -- 26.5 percent -- never took a statin to treat their condition.
A deeper dig into the data shows that black patients eligible for statins were 48 percent less likely to be offered the drug. Women were also 22 percent less likely to be offered statins by their doctor, and people without insurance were 38 percent less likely.
The study showed that patients who visited a cardiologist were more likely to be offered a statin.
Statins reduce the level of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, which is commonly referred to as "bad" cholesterol. This can lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
"We were surprised to see that over half of the patients eligible for, but not on, a statin reported they had never been offered one by their doctor. The reason why is hard to know," Bradley said. "Providers have a lot to manage in short clinic visits, and identifying patients who would benefit from a statin is not always straightforward."
Bradley said the hope is to develop a systemic, standardized way to identify patients and improve the way cardiovascular disease is managed. "The other issue is that patients have a lot of fears about statins -- many of which are fueled by false information," he added.
In the past, the AHA has reported that statins have a low risk for side effects. Still many doctors are neglecting to prescribe the potentially life-saving treatment, Bradley said.
"The reality is that statins are actually one of the safest medications we have to prevent heart disease, and most patients who experience possible side effects on one statin do fine if they are switched to another," Bradley said.
Still, many people refuse to take them or stop taking them after they start. In fact, close to 31 percent of patients discontinue statin use, while about 10 percent of people who need the drug never start using them.
"Although there are some known side effects of statins, there is a lot of false information about statin risks circulating online," Bradley said. "As providers, we need to seek out these concerns from our patients, and we need trusted sources we can point patients towards to where they can learn about the real risks and benefits of statins."