I visited my local clinic the other day as part of my biannual clean-ears-hearing-improvement campaign. And, as is always the case when I visit my doctor, he’s a little surprised when I tell him that I’m not using any drugs. I’m not talking recreational pharmaceuticals here (though he might be surprised by that, too); I’m referring to their perfectly legal counterparts that come courtesy of Big Pharma.
It’s fair to say that I am something of an outlier among folks my age. About 75 percent of my contemporaries suffer from multiple chronic health conditions, diseases that most doctors believe can only be controlled by various medications whose names always remind me of Star Trek villains (“Zocor, go round up Plavix, Lipitor, and Crestor and prepare to beam over to the Enterprise”). I don’t know whether I’m suffering from any of these maladies because I only go to the doctor to get my ears cleaned. And I feel pretty good most of the time. But if I did begin to display some of the symptoms that signal a serious illness, a new study from Oregon State University makes a pretty persuasive argument against taking the Big Pharma route.
The Dangers of Drug Combos
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, reported that more than one in five older Americans are being treated with combinations of drugs that actually make them sicker. Beta blockers deployed to treat coronary heart disease, for instance, can cause airway resistance in patients who also suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Similar issues arise in patients with hypertension and diabetes, hypertension and osteoarthritis, depression and hypertension, and other chronic illness combos. To make matters worse, most doctors are aware of the problem, but do little to alleviate it. Researchers found that physicians changed these risky prescriptions in only 16 percent of the cases studied.
“Drugs tend to focus on one disease at a time, and most physicians treat patients the same way,” David Lee, an assistant professor at OSU’s College of Pharmacy, said in a statement released by the university. “As a result, right now we’re probably treating too many conditions with too many medications. There may be times it’s best to just focus on the most serious health problem, rather than use a drug to treat a different condition that could make the more serious health problem even worse.”
Multiple medications, of course, are also known to cause serious side effects, including delirium, fatigue, anorexia, and dizziness, among others. I have enough trouble keeping my delirium under control as it is.
What’s troubling about all this is that if the doctors don’t even know how to handle these issues, how can we expect their patients to figure it out? Once you get hit with a diagnosis and sent over to the pharmacy, most folks are leaning pretty heavily on their doctor to steer them in the right direction. If all that M.D. has to offer is another bottle of pills when those other bottles of pills aren’t doing the job, you could be in trouble.
So, next time you’re checking in with your doc and he wants to write you a prescription for something that sounds vaguely like the name of a Klingon officer from a far distant galaxy, take a tip from Captain Kirk: Put your shields up.