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Ponder these two ideas: we take more prescription drugs per person than any other nation on the planet and in the process, rank about 40th in the overall health of our citizenry. Yes, this is partly because 47 million of us don’t have health insurance, but also every year about 120,000 people die from the side effects of correctly taken prescription drugs. This makes “death by prescription medication” the fifth leading cause of death in the US. How did we get into this mess?
Believe me, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. I grew up working in my father’s pharmacy, where he’d fill a few prescriptions every day, mainly some antibiotics (averaging about $3 per prescription without insurance), hand mix an ointment, grind some powders together. When people had symptoms–a cold, heartburn, achy joints–they relied on home remedies or over-the-counter medications and toughed it out. Whose back didn’t hurt? That’s why you went to a chiropractor. Back then, the late 1950s and 1960s, people lived pretty much as long as we live now.
But when prescription coverage was added to hospitalization insurance in the 1970s, the scene changed. Drug manufacturing became an “industry.” Prices skyrocketed. The cost for the patient remained the same, usually five dollars or less, but the drugs themselves got very (very) expensive. And so did our reliance on them. Until Big Pharma began direct-to-consumer advertising, their only “customer” was me, the doctor, and they’d do everything possible to get us interested in their products while we were young. My complete doctor bag, including equipment, was a graduation present from a drug company back in 1968.
Another drug company took my entire graduating class of 200 for a week in Manhattan, all expenses paid, theatre tickets, the whole nine yards. The company had no specific product to market–they were “teaching” us about the industry. Today a gift like that is chickenfeed compared to what drug companies contribute to “research” centers (where a majority of study results manage to show a benefit for the company’s product) and saturation advertising.
Big Pharma’s advertising has worked beyond their wildest dreams. Many physicians treat every possible symptom by handing you a prescription, which you then fill and dutifully start swallowing. Some busy docs write well over 100 prescriptions a day, with automatic refills. You may feel like you “got better” because of your prescription (the irony being you likely would have gotten better on your own without it) and so you join the ranks of believers. Next time you develop a symptom, your mind quickly turns to “I might need a prescription for this.”
Let me say here that there are some prescription drugs that save lives. Undeniably, drugs such as those that suppress the AIDS virus, change the course of multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, or gently bring high blood pressure under control add years to people’s lives. But do we really need six expensive prescription drugs for heartburn when you could just eat more judiciously? Do we need a dozen for diabetes, which we could largely prevent by healthful eating and exercise?
Most important, the public needs to be aware that the vast majority of prescription drugs are unnecessary, overprescribed, and often dangerous. For a little more on this from prominent members of the medical community, watch this five-minute YouTube video called Big Bucks, Big Pharma: Marketing Disease & Pushing Drugs.
Let me close with this important fact: Most doctors do NOT take prescription drugs unless they’re absolutely necessary. I’ve asked the same question of my colleagues for years, “Are you taking anything regularly?” And unless they have a specific illness that can’t be controlled by a lifestyle change, such as severe high blood pressure, the answer is almost always, “No.”
David Edelberg, MD