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Death by Medicine
by Gary Null


"An alarming one in four patients suffered observable side effects from the more than 3.34 billion prescription drugs filled in 2002."


Prescription drugs constitute the major treatment modality of scientific medicine. With the discovery of the "germ theory," medical scientists convinced the public that infectious organisms were the cause of illness. Finding the "cure" for these infections proved much harder than anyone imagined. From the beginning, chemical drugs promised much more than they delivered. But far beyond not working, the drugs also cause incalculable side effects. The drugs themselves, even when properly prescribed, have side effects that can be fatal. But human error can make the situation even worse.    Drug iatrogenesis is defined as "the inadvertent and preventable induction of disease or complications by the medical treatment or procedures of a physician." This may also include anesthesia. Major complications of spinals and epidurals include damage to nerves or the spinal cord by infection (meningitis and abscess), bleeding and blood clots (hematoma), direct damage to the nerves (needle injury or chemical injury) including paralysis. A further complication occurs when a "drug switch" or "route switch" occurs: either the wrong drug is delivered as an epidural or spinal (drug switch) or a drug that should have been administered intravenously is used as an epidural or spinal, or vice versa (route switch). The sensitivity of the nervous system and the type of drugs used means these mistakes can be fatal.

A 2002 study showed that 20% of hospital medications for patients had dosage errors. Nearly 40% of these errors were considered potentially harmful to the patient. The Lazarou study analyzed records for prescribed medications for 33 million U.S. hospital admissions in 1994. It discovered 2.2 million serious injuries due to prescribed drugs. The study estimated that 106,000 deaths occur annually due to adverse drug reactions. Serious adverse drug reactions commonly emerge after FDA approval. The safety of new agents cannot be known with certainty until a drug has been on the market for years.
   
More recent studies on adverse drug reactions show that the figures may be increasing. A 2003 study followed 400 patients after discharge from a tertiary care hospital setting (requiring highly specialized skills, technology, or support services). Seventy-six patients (19%) had adverse events. Adverse drug events were the most common, at 66% of all events. This next most common event was procedure related injuries at 17%.   

In a New England Journal of Medicine study, an alarming one in four patients suffered observable side effects from the more than 3.34 billion prescription drugs filled in 2002. One of the doctors who produced the study was interviewed by Reuters and commented, "With these 10-minute appointments, it's hard for the doctor to get into whether the symptoms are bothering the patients." Standard medical pharmacology texts admit that relatively few doctors ever report adverse drug reactions to the FDA. The reasons range from not knowing such a reporting system exists to fear of being sued. Yet the public depends on this tremendously flawed system of voluntary reporting by doctors to know whether a drug or medical intervention is harmful.   

Pharmacology texts also will tell doctors how hard it is to separate drug side effects from disease symptoms. Treatment failure is most often attributed to the disease and not the drug or doctor. Doctors are warned, "Probably nowhere else in professional life are mistakes so easily hidden, even from ourselves." It may be hard to accept, but it is not difficult to understand why only one in twenty side effects is reported to either hospital administrators or the FDA. Patients seeking a more joyful existence and relief from worry, stress, and anxiety are frequently swayed by the messages endlessly displayed on TV and billboards. Often, instead of gaining relief, they fall victim to the myriad iatrogenic side effects of antidepressant medication.   

Moreover, a whole generation of antidepressant users has been created from young people growing up on Ritalin. Medicating young people and modifying their emotions must have some impact on how they learn to deal with their feelings. They learn to equate coping with drugs rather than with their inner resources. As adults, these medicated youth reach for alcohol, prescription drugs, or even street drugs to cope. You cannot turn on the television without hearing a pitch for drugs for social anxiety, depression, or lethargy. Note that when they tell you the side effects, they often show a pastoral scene of beauty, or a joyful activity at the same time, so you will equate the obligatory warning of danger with a pleasant memory.   

To reach the widest audience possible, drug companies no longer simply target medical doctors with their marketing of antidepressants. By 1995, drug companies had tripled the amount of money allotted to direct advertising of prescription drugs to consumers. The majority of this money is spent on seductive television ads. From 1996 to 2000, spending rose from $791 million to nearly $2.5 billion. This $2.5 billion represents only 15% of the total pharmaceutical advertising budget. While the drug companies maintain that direct-to-consumer advertising is educational, the public often is misinformed by these ads. A finding of a national survey of 643 physicians by Harvard's Dr. Joel Weissman found that "direct-to-consumer ads led patients to seek unnecessary treatments."

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