As modern medicine advances, the wide range of pharmaceuticals on offer continues to expand. There’s a pill for everything. Serious illnesses right down to minor quirks can be addressed through prescriptions. But the question remains: how effective are they?
A new investigative report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MedPage reveals the real statistics behind how many high-profile drugs actually work.
The article opens with a glimpse at sexual performance drugs, stating that male testosterone supplement Androgel only helps 1 in 9 men. That sounds promising, however, with 1 in 14 reporting acne, and 1 in 33 reporting an increase in emotional mood swings resulting in impatience or anger, it brings into question the harmful side effects.
“It’s the biggest secret in medicine,” said F. Perry Wilson, a researcher and physician at Yale University School of Medicine. “For the vast majority of the drugs out there, the chance that you, as an individual, are going to see a benefit is quite small.”
The scariest part of this data is that it’s not even accurate. According to the report, these numbers are exaggerated because “the dangers and benefits are determined in clinical trials set up by drug manufacturers. The trials often are highly controlled tests that exclude the kinds of real-world patients who will be put on a drug once it gets on the market.”
On a similar note, many major pharmaceutical companies are concocting health disorders in order to push their products. Everyday problems are no longer stresses and strains of life, they’re transformed into ailments that require pharmaceuticals to be remedied. The article cites an earlier report from Journal Sentinel/MedPage that analyzed eight conditions that emerged over the last 20 years. These “new” medical disorders now affect upwards of 180 million Americans. That’s 77% of the population who are now taking drugs for symptoms that are not life-threatening.
In short? There are 8 so-called medical disorders that are not life-threatening yet people are prescribed drugs that are life-threatening.
Since 2013, nearly 65,000 reports of serious side effects involving drugs used to treat five of the conditions have been reported to the FDA, according to a Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today analysis. That includes more than 1,600 deaths.
Research by the team’s MD, F. Perry Wilson, looked into the harmful effects of drugs created for five non-life-threatening illnesses. He started with Vyvanse, designed to treat adult ADHD and binge-eating disorders. The drug has a 2.9 “number to treat” score – this means nearly 3 people have to take it before it has an effect. Its “number to harm” score is 5, meaning for every 5 people who take it one will succumb to insomnia. You can read Wilson’s entire breakdown here, along with the rest of the original investigation.
There’s several troubling aspects to these results. First of all, these medications aren’t cheap; Vyvanse for example costs $310 for a month’s supply. Then there’s the long list of harmful side effects, too: this continues to be an issue with many statins, that are reported to affect most people with negative side effects. That’s not just acne or insomnia – statins are linked to over 300 serious health risks.
However, the most worrying aspect is that no research has been conducted to ascertain how drugs react when taken in concert with others. Russ Altman, Professor of Bioengineering, Genetics, Medicine and Computer Science at Stanford University, delivered a TEDTalk about the reality of mixing medications. Most drug companies don’t do any in-depth research, instead preferring to collect data after they’ve hit the market. This means millions of Americans are taking drug combinations that have the potential to be very harmful. The Journal Sentinel/MedPage investigation lists several case studies proving how dangerous drug cocktails can be, including a 35-year old Milwaukee nurse. Katie Erickson died last year after taking Vyvanse (an amphetamine) for ADHD, a narcotic painkiller, and alcohol.
The take home message of this investigation is summed up best by Michael Hochman, of the University of Southern California, who also practices as a primary care doctor. Here’s what he told researchers: “Too often, patients get started on medications and don’t experience any benefit, yet the medications are continued. Or worse, they experience side effects that they do not realize are related to the medication and the net result is more harm than good.”
This cycle affects millions of Americans each year. It’s a hard habit to break when many serious medical conditions are being treated by different specialists. But speaking to your doctors and re-evaluating your prescription medications could save your life.
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