Friday, April 15, 2011

Needle-Free Test for Premature Babies Means Less Pain. Not So.

Things are not always what they seem. Here’s a lesson for those who follow the medical literature. Read the paper, not the press release.
A press release touting the results of a drug monitoring study in premature babies from researchers in Northern Ireland states that the use of heel prick instead of venipuncture is less painful. Two major distributors of press releases, Science Daily and IANS published stories on this with the respective headlines “Needle-Free Test for Premature Babies” and “A painless, needle-free test for premature babies soon.”

Both reports quoted the principal author [obviously, directly from the press release] as follows, “This type of testing will obviously reduce the discomfort of medicine testing in these vulnerable patients.”

However, the objective of the paper as stated by the authors was to “…characterize the population pharmacokinetics…”of the antibiotic, metronidazole, which had apparently not been well-studied in neonates. There was no comparison of heel prick to venipuncture. All samples were drawn via heel prick. Furthermore, nowhere in the paper is there any mention of pain assessment in the babies.

The subject of pain associated with blood testing of babies has been extensively researched. A  1999 review (updated in 2007) by the respected Cochrane Collaboration found that venipuncture was in fact less painful that heel prick for obtaining blood from infants.

Bottom line. The study was about monitoring a drug, not pain. The assertion that heel prick is less painful than venipuncture for babies cannot be a valid conclusion based on the study as published. Press releases can be deceiving.

The lead author of the study did not respond to an email request for comment.

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