A pill for every ill, and we are sick a lot
Last week, I wrote about the $958 bill I’ve gotten — twice — for ordinary blood tests and my view that it is emblematic of health-care price gouging and lack of transparency even as we are asked to become better medical consumers.
Because of reaction to that column, I’ve decided to write this week and next about medical matters. Today’s topic is America’s obsession with prescription drugs of all sorts; next week, I’ll focus on pain medicine and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In both cases, many people are being made dependent on prescriptions that treat symptoms and leave them less likely to ever really get well. At the extreme, thousands are dying.
I of course am not a health professional. Goodness, don’t take this as medical advice. I’m a cancer survivor, runner, bicyclist and editor who has led reporting projects about drug addiction and our country’s collective addiction to pain medication.
Out of that, I offer my personal and journalistic perspective and urge you to work with your doctors — and to be more questioning than most of us have been — to make informed health choices for yourself.
I’ve been fortunate to need few medications. Other than my little bout with throat cancer in 2010, I’ve been a pretty healthy guy, particularly after I became a dad and quit drinking and smoking and started running in the early 1990s.
My parents (Mom is still living at 93) also had few prescriptions.
Almost everyone in the United States, of course, has had the opportunity to get lots of medicine — for anxiety, for trouble sleeping, for skin conditions, for pain, for high cholesterol, for much, much more. U.S. prescription drug spending was $329 billion last year, more than doubling since 2000. Drug companies are wildly profitable, with the world’s 11 largest making a net profit of $711.4 billion from 2003 to 2012, according to drugwatch.com.
We can avoid many of these medications. Exercise can be more effective than pills in relieving some cases of anxiety, insomnia and depression. Exercise also is good for blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, and staving off Type II diabetes, which is exploding in America.
Drugs are necessary at times, and in some cases for the long term.
When I had cancer, counting the chemo combo, pain meds, antiemetics and an appetite stimulant, I was taking more than a dozen drugs weekly at the height of treatment. Even then, with a hole burned in my neck from radiation, trouble sleeping and other discomfort, I sensed that it would be easy to take too much pain medicine.
Later, overseeing a project at the Cincinnati Enquirer about the modern heroin epidemic, I learned that many of today’s heroin addicts became hooked on opiates after being prescribed pain pills for legitimate conditions.
I also learned that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented a 300 percent increase between 1999 and 2010 in the sale of opioid prescriptions. By 2010, enough painkillers were prescribed “to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for one month,” the CDC reported.
This coincided with the approval of Oxycontin and aggressive marketing by that drug’s maker and other pharmaceutical companies. The manufacturers of pain pills took over education of doctors, won a shift in pain treatment guidelines and flooded the country with opiates that now kill 17,000 people a year.
But it’s not just the overtly dangerous opiates with which Americans are obsessed.
The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” includes a decades-old story from a doctor who, in sharing his experience, described America today:
He took medications “because I had the symptom that only that pill would relieve. Therefore, every pill was medically indicated at the time it was taken. … I had a pill for every ill, and I was sick a lot.”
Just watch TV some evening. We have all manner of things wrong with us — some we never would have thought of ourselves without the help of big pharma.
In my case, as I regained weight after cancer treatment, my cholesterol rose. As I wrote in last week’s column, a doctor persuaded me last year to try Lipitor because I hadn’t gotten total cholesterol under 200 with diet and exercise, despite two marathons in 2013.
Lipitor, for me, produced a range of unpleasant side effects, so I consulted with my doctor and quit. I started taking massive doses of fish oil and psyllium, which lowered my total cholesterol from 235 to 208 — still marginally high.
Luckily, after moving to Carbondale, I met Dr. Greg Feinsinger and talked briefly about his vegan prepared meal plan, which my wife and I then tried. In six weeks, using no drugs, my overall cholesterol dropped to 175 and I lost 16 pounds. It also helped my mood and sleep because I’m running more comfortably.
Again, drugs are the only option at times. But when the disclaimers on TV ads are longer than the sales pitch and include warnings about suicidal tendencies, stroke, night sweats and green skin (made that one up), a lifestyle change that’s harder than taking a pill may well be the way to go.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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