We take too many prescription drugs. A study in JAMA (2015:314(17):1818-31. Nov. 3, 2015) was titled, “Trends in prescription drug use among adults in the U.S. from 1999-2012.” The authors used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) which included 37,959 adults. The authors found an increase in overall use of prescription drugs among US adults between 1999 and 2012.
In 1999, 51% of U.S. adults reported using any prescription drugs and 59% reporting use in 2012. That is a 24% increase. The prevalence of polypharmacy (>5 prescription drugs) increased from 9.2% in 1999 to 15% in 2012—a 39% increase. The prevalence of drug use increased in 11 drug classes included cholesterol-lowering agents, antidepressants, and prescription-proton pump inhibitors.
Comment: There are two major reasons we are experiencing an increase in prescription drug use. The first is direct-to-consumer advertising. These are the drug ads we all see on television and in print. We are only one of two countries that allow direct-to-consumer advertising. Studies have shown that the marketing of drugs to consumers results in more prescriptions and greater profits for Big Pharma. Direct-to-consumer advertising should be stopped.
The second reason we are seeing a marked increase in prescribing patterns is due to how doctors are educated. In medical school, when evaluating a patient, I was trained to make a diagnosis and prescribe a drug (or drugs) to treat that diagnosis. I was taught that nearly every complaint could be managed with a drug. That would be fine if the drug treated the underlying cause of the illness. However, the opposite is true: Most drugs—over 95% (my estimate)–do not treat the underlying cause of an illness. Nearly all prescription drugs treat the symptoms of a disease.
The most upsetting part of this study was the polypharmacy aspect. The researchers reported that 15% of Americans use at least five prescription drugs. Folks, this is a disaster. Where are the studies that show it is safe to take five or more prescription medications at one time? There aren’t any.
Perhaps the increased use in prescription medications resulted in better health outcomes. If you believe that, I may have some swampland in Florida for you! In every health indicator the World Health Organization tracks we finish last or near last among every Western country. We don’t live as long as other Western people and we have more chronic illness. Things are getting worse for us, not better. And, we spend nearly 20% of our GNP on health care–over two-fold higher than any other Western country.
Clearly taking more drugs is not the answer.
What is the answer? The answer is to educate yourself before taking a prescription medication. Ultimately, you are responsible for every drug you put in your body. The patients that get the best results are the patients who take an active role in their health care decisions. You should study how the drug works and see if there are natural alternatives available to you. I feel that it is best to work with a holistic health care practitioner who is knowledgeable about drug and non-drug therapies.
If you are taking too many drugs, don’t allow yourself to feel overwhelmed. Start to educate yourself about the drugs and see if they are right for you. Most of all, ask questions about any drug therapy you are prescribed.