I recently visited a nurse practitioner about my bad case of bronchitis. I left with prescriptions for four medications, which I took as prescribed. Most visits to health care professionals have that same outcome. Pharmaceuticals are the first answer in traditional western medicine. This approach works well for many acute illnesses. Medications save lives, reduce hospitalizations and speed recovery. Except when they don’t.
According to a 2014 Harvard University Center of Ethics blog by Donald W. Light, New Prescription Drugs: A Major Health Risk With Few Offsetting Advantages, an estimated 128,000 people die each year from drugs prescribed to them, making medication-related death the fourth leading cause of death in America.
It’s the equivalent of a 747 plane crashing every day!
Light’s article concludes, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accepts the findings of commercially funded clinical trials to approve new drugs, “financially the FDA is an extension of the pharmaceutical industry and plays a major role in expanding the markets for more people to take drugs.”
These new drugs, which are the main subject of Light’s article, can make test subjects out the general public. Light references the Vioxx “drug disaster” in his article saying, “experts say (it) caused about 120,000 traumatic cardiovascular events and 40,000 deaths.” Vioxx was a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs) released in 1999 and taken off the market by 2004. Because of drug disasters, like Vioxx, I have talked to some doctors who won’t recommend a drug unless it’s been on the market for at least five years.
I have long believed that we must be our own health advocate. Many people find this to be intimidating, as questioning a doctor goes against the “doctor knows best” mentality that was imparted to us by our parents. But this is a new day and a much more complicated one. This process may not be so difficult if you just have a few questions in your back pocket to start a dialogue:
- Does my condition need to be treated with a drug or can I try lifestyle changes first? For example, studies have shown that exercise is as effective as medication for mild to moderate depression. In addition, diet and exercise can help manage diabetes and heart disease.
- If I need a medication, is there an existing version of the medication that I can use? Light points out in his article that there is little support that most of the new drugs “provide significant advantages over existing, better-known drugs.”
- Are you prescribing this medication to treat a symptom that could be a side effect of another drug? This is called the prescribing cascade and it happens more often than you think. For example, people taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are 66 percent more likely to be prescribed a medication for high blood pressure.
- Should I be taking all the medications I am currently prescribed? At every doctor visit, ask for a review of all medications and ask if you still need to be taking each one.
Maintaining health and well-being becomes more difficult as we get older. And we need to be educated consumers, just as we are for so many other aspects of life. Don’t be afraid to take care of yourself, to find a health care provider who will partner with you, and to Be Well on Purpose!