Dr. Julia’s Inn: Are we being prescribed to death?

Over the years, one of the most tragic situations I have seen in my practice as a natural health practitioner and a cancer survivor is the number of clients who are either over-medicated or who have been prescribed medications that create harmful side effects, some worse than the disease process itself. If I add to this list the many clients who are taking over-the-counter digestive aids that are ineffective or even detrimental to their digestive processes, I am talking about literally thousands of people.

Recently, I was taking a continuing education class, and I became aware of just how serious this problem really is. My instructor presented us with a lecture about the use—and overuse—of prescription medications in the U.S. I was so alarmed that I went home and did even more research. What I learned was so shocking that I’d like to share with you some of the information I have uncovered about the downside of prescription medications in the hopes that it might improve your quality of life and health. I feel it is vitally important for consumers to understand ALL of their options for wellness. There is a big difference between just taking prescription medications or learning to heal through lifestyle changes.

Drug-related deaths and complications

We have been taught to put our faith in the healing powers of drugs, but the truth is serious medical complications, or even death, can result from taking certain prescription medicines or being over-medicated. Here are some general figures from studies that show the seriousness of this problem:

Over the last several years, there have been an estimated 23,000 to 284,000 deaths from pharmaceutical drugs.

Drug morbidity and mortality costs the American medical system $76.6 billion per year; 15 million drug-related hospitalizations cost an additional $47.4 billion/year. And 115 million visits to the doctor due to problems with medication cost $7.5 billion per year. This last figure represents 17.3 percent of all yearly doctor visits (670 million per year).

76.3 million prescriptions are needed to resolve drug failures, at a cost of $1.93 million per year.

There are 89.8 million ER visits due to drug-related problems yearly.

From 1983-1993, the number of fatalities due to errors in medication increased 260 percent. Among outpatients, fatal med errors increased 850 percent.

A 1998 issue of The Lancet reported that the number of drugs prescribed increased by 39 percent while medical deaths increased by 257 percent in that year.

The real ‘cost’ of America’s over-use of pharmaceuticals

If taking prescription drugs and being over-medicated can cause such serious complications—even death—then why are so many doctors still writing so many prescriptions? The answer is complicated, but basically it has to do with two main factors—consumer demand and profitability. Over the last half century, consumers have been conditioned to put a great deal of faith in the miraculous healing powers of modern “wonder drugs.” On the other side of the equation, retail sales of pharmaceuticals have become one of the most profitable industries in this country. Here are some figures indicating the yearly profits made from some of the more popular prescription medicines:

The 10 top-selling prescription drugs

1. Prilosec—$4.1 billion

2. Lipitor—$3.7 billion

3. Prevacid—$2.8 billion

4. Prozac—$2.6 billion

5. Zocor—$2.2 billion

6. Celebrex—$2.0 billion

7. Zoloft—$1.9 billion

8. Paxil—$1.8 billion

9. Claritin—$1.7 billion

10. Glucophage—$1.6 billion

To give you an idea of how this translates into the number of prescriptions written by medical doctors and the amount of promotional and advertising money paid by pharmaceutical companies to market these drugs, take a look at the following figures published in the February 2005 Wall Street Journal.

In 2003, sales of Vioxx totaled $1.8 billion. The number of prescriptions written totaled 19.9 million. The cost of promotions aimed at doctors was $499.8 billion. The cost of direct consumer advertising was $78 million.

In 2003, sales of Celebrex totaled $2.6 billion. The number of prescriptions written totaled 23.6 million. The cost of promotions aimed at doctors was $483.6 million. The cost of direct consumer advertising was $87 million.

In 2003, sales of Bextra totaled $935 million. The number of prescriptions written totaled 10.4 million. The cost of promotions aimed at doctors was $395.6 million. No data was available for the cost of direct consumer advertising.

Taking prescription drugs has become the American way of life

As I pointed out above, taking prescription medications is a practice that has become so popular people do not even think twice about popping a pill—and the entire culture seems to support this mindset.

In the past few years, it has even become popular for the big pharmaceutical companies to create television commercials featuring happy people, pain-free, walking through a field of wildflowers and who are restored to health through taking a particular prescription drug. At the end of the commercial, while the voice-over rapidly mentions the side effects, many of which sound fairly horrendous, cheerful music plays, and attractive men and women dance across the screen with their families. Based on these ads, getting rid of your high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction or arthritis by simply taking the right pill seems like the easiest thing in the world!

What is hiding behind these happy-go-lucky commercials is the harsh truth that prescription medications can cause serious health risks for patients, especially when over-prescribed. For example, Vioxx is the most heavily advertised drug in the United States, with Merck, its manufacturer, spending about $577.8 million per year total on advertising to doctors and consumers. This advertising campaign has been so successful that in 2000, one year after this drug was released on the market, its sales had quadrupled.

However, the Wall Street Journal, citing a study by the FDA, reported that between 1999, when Vioxx received FDA approval, and 2001, there had been thousands of heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths associated with the drug. After analyzing medical records of 1.4 million people insured by Oakland-based Kaiser, researchers found 8,199 heart attacks and sudden cardiac death events among Kaiser members that were attributed to Vioxx during that time period. In Merck’s own 8,000 pt trial of Vioxx before the drug was launched in 1999, more than two times as many arthritis patients taking it had heart attacks and strokes. Yet, this drug is still being prescribed and taken by the American people.

Aside from heart problems, Vioxx’s adverse reactions and side effects include headache, asthenia, fatigue, dizziness, hypertension, leg edema, sinusitis, diarrhea, dyspepsia, epigastric discomfort, heartburn, nausea, abdominal pain, urinary tract infection, back pain, bronchitis, upper respiratory tract infection and flu syndrome.

How many of us are taking prescription medications?

Again, prescription drug use has become so much a part of the American way of life that it has become an unquestioned practice. In 2000, U.S. doctors wrote 312 million prescriptions, about one per patient. NSAID sales accounted for $110 million of those sales, up from $70 million in the late 1990s. COX2 inhibitors sales accounted for $58 million of those sales, antibiotics $8.9 billion, antidepressants $8.5 billion, cholesterol-lowering drugs $7.5 billion, and blood pressure medications $5.2 billion.

Our children are not exempt from this practice. The number of young people younger than 19 who take medications has increased 28 percent since last year. Over the last five years, kids taking medications for heartburn and other GI disorders has increased 600 percent.

Another common practice is for doctors to knowingly prescribe unneeded antibiotics to kids because they think it’s easier and faster than telling us parents why medicine isn’t necessary. However,

researchers have found this is not true. Studies have shown it takes the same amount of time to properly educate parents as it does to prescribe the medications and put kids at risk from unnecessary drugs.

Even psychiatric drugs that were once given only to adults are now being given to children. This can also lead to disastrous results. For example, in a bulletin titled “Paxil and Suicide,” the FDA issued a warning that Paxil should not be given to kids because of the increased risk of suicide.

However, individuals older than 65 are still leading the crowd in drug use, with 90 percent of older Americans taking at least one prescription drug per day. Here are some interesting statistics I found dating from 1999. You can imagine how things have only gotten worse. In 1999, for every 100 office visits made by individuals 65 years or older, doctors prescribed 192 drugs, in other words, almost two new drug prescriptions every time a senior walked into an MD’s office. Two-thirds of all visits resulted in at least one prescription, and 58.1 percent resulted in older patients being given multiple meds. In 1999, physicians were 43 percent more likely to prescribe multiple drugs than in 1985. If you want to see how healthy our older Americans are, just go look in a nursing home. The power of drugs!!!

Dr. Julia Whipkey-Michniewicz is a Naturopathic Doctor and a breast cancer survivor who would not do chemical therapy or radiation therapy. Her practice is in Rockford, Ill. You may reach her at 815-962-3326 or visit her Web page at drjuliasinn.com.

From the Feb. 15-21, 2006, issue

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