Wellcome Research Fellow Dr Liam Smeeth and his team analysed data from UK primary care records to see if statin use changed following a period of intense media coverage from October 2013 to March 2014.
Their results, published today in the BMJ, reveal there was no change in the proportion of newly eligible patients starting statins, but there was an increase in the likelihood of existing users stopping statin therapy.
The increase in the overall proportion of people stopping statins appeared to be temporary – the proportion who stopped returned to expected levels after six months.
From the data in this study, the researchers can't conclude that media coverage of the debate was the direct cause of people stopping their statins.
"We have seen many instances where health-related media coverage has had an impact on patient behaviour, sometimes in a positive way, such as increases in attendance for cancer screening after coverage of celebrities developing cancer," said Dr Smeeth.
"However, in the case of statins, we are concerned that widespread reporting of the debate has given disproportionate weight to a minority view about possible side effects. This has dented public confidence in a drug which most scientists and health professionals believe to be a safe and effective option against heart disease for the vast majority of patients."
The research team, based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, had funding from the British Heart Foundation.