Over the past couple of months, a friend of mine has had a very traumatic experience with her brother, who, several weeks after being prescribed an antidepressant, became uncharacteristically anxious and intentionally overdosed. The family later discovered suicidal tendencies listed as a potential side effect of the drug, something the physician hadn’t told them.
Thankfully he survived, but ended up in ICU on a respirator coping with seizures and pneumonia. The pneumonia cleared up but the antibiotics he was given apparently caused his kidneys to shut down. He was then put on steroids, which helped his urine flow but caused other side effects. He also picked up some kind of bacteria at the hospital. During this time he had a feeding tube through his nose, and was able to say only a few words and make a gesture or two. Eventually, he was able to stand up and take some steps. And then, unfathomably, a physician put him back on the same antidepressant the family feels caused the overdose in the first place. He became almost comatose and the family fought for the removal of the drug.
There’s no question that acute care is an important and essential part of the health care system, and that pharmaceutical drugs have their place in the management of illness, but shouldn’t we be asking tougher questions about our increasing reliance on prescription medications and the potential costs to human health and the health care system?
My friend’s story is a shocking one, but sadly, not that uncommon from what I’ve been reading. Here are the startling facts I found from some reliable sources during my Internet research for this blog post:
- In 2004, a report published by the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHI) found that preventable medical errors contribute to between 9,000 and 24,000 deaths in Canada each year. Extrapolating those figures, the CIHI estimated that patients spend more than 1 million extra days in hospital being treated for injuries or complications of their care. In this same study, nearly 25% of Canadian adults said they or a family member had experienced a preventable medical error, with drug errors and infections topping the list.
- In 2005,the Canadian Adverse Events Study suggested that based on its findings, of the almost 2.5 million annual hospital admissions in Canada similar to the type studied, about 185,000 are associated with an adverse event and close to 70,000 of these are potentially preventable.
- Earlier this year, a CBC investigative report found that prescription drug overdoses were not being tracked on a national level. And a recent ongoing investigation by the Toronto Star found that while Health Canada’s side-effect database contains about 100,000 serious side-effect reports made since 2001, with nearly 20,000 last year alone (roughly double the amount filed in 2008), the government agency does not seem to be doing much more than periodic reviews to follow up, with no case reporting or in-depth investigations of troubling cases.
- A 2008 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that nearly half (48%) of Americans had taken at least one prescription drug in the previous month (up from 41% 10 years earlier). Almost 20% of children age 0-11, and 30% age 12-19, took one or more prescription drugs. Overall the use of five or more drugs had increased by 70% over the previous 10 years. U.S. spending on prescription drugs was $234.1 billion in 2008, more than double the figure in 1999.
- According to the CIHI, in Canada between 1998 and 2007, spending on prescription drugs used outside of hospitals grew from $8 billion to $19 billion.
It seems only common sense that we should question the “wisdom” of layering one prescription drug over top of another – often where one drug is introduced to combat the side effects of the previous one – particularly with someone whose health is already compromised (my friend’s brother was in the early stages of Huntington ’s disease, diagnosed several years earlier). And let’s not forget that as more drugs are introduced, essential nutrients the body needs to maintain health become severely depleted. When they are not adequately replaced through vitamin and mineral supplementation, further damage occurs. This practice of overmedication seems both pervasive and rather casual. And, it appears, nearly everyone is looking the other way when things go wrong, including the pharmaceutical manufacturers which need to be held accountable for adverse events, and the governments who fast-track approvals of these medications and fail to act vigilantly when adverse events are reported (just look at the Vioxx debacle for a case in point).
At the same time, there seems to be an ongoing backlash against vitamin supplements (which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been linked to any deaths). Recently, over the course of one week, there was a rash of headlines in the newspapers that caught my eye. “Multivitamins don’t keep older men’s hearts healthy,” said one. “The benefit of vitamins unclear,” said the other. Yet another with the headline “Long life linked to low vitamin D” cited a new Dutch study suggesting that “low levels of the sunshine vitamin can actually mean living a long and healthy life” – directly contradicting literally thousands of other studies conducted on vitamin D which show a myriad of health benefits (read our related articles on this topic).
Headlines like these are written to hook the reader and sell newspapers. And they can be rather misleading to say the least. In some of the articles that followed, a more balanced approach was taken, with various experts analyzing the data and raising concerns about flaws in the research design or other limitations of the study. Then there is the more complex question of bias, sponsorship and other “small p” political motivations behind medical and pharmaceutical research.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that a lot of the recent studies behind the headlines are intentionally aimed at casting unnecessary doubt on the safety and efficacy of vitamins. And there’s no doubt that pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in making vitamins and other natural health products seem somewhat “dangerous” (if vitamins keep people healthier they threaten market share for pharmaceuticals) – even as some of those same pharmaceutical companies are buying up vitamin companies themselves.
For the average person, particularly someone trying to make an informed decision about treating a condition, understanding and analyzing research is not a simple task (and one which we would like to devote some attention to in articles coming next year). But I think the bottom line is pretty simple: don’t believe everything you read, and always seek advice from a qualified health professional – preferably one with an integrative and holistic perspective – who will take the time and care to weigh and present ALL of the evidence.
Thankfully, this blog post ends on a positive note. My friend’s brother continues to progress, quite miraculously considering everything he has been through (I believe this can mostly be attributed to the love and care he has received from his family), and he will soon be moving to a rehabilitation facility. The family’s goal is for him to come home, at least for a visit, to celebrate Christmas. And our newest articles on GoGreenInside.ca feature what’s RIGHT when it comes to health care – with stories about integrative health centres that are taking a more enlightened and comprehensive approach to helping people manage their chronic conditions.