The Rise of Prescription Drug Use

Americans are now on more drugs than ever, a trend that has been steadily on the rise for many years.  A recent Consumer Reports survey of almost 2000 American adults found that more than half of the adult population sampled is on at least one medication, while the average adult takes four.  In 1997, Americans filled just over 2.4 billion prescriptions. In 2016 that number rose to almost 4.5 billion.  This comes out to about an 85% increase in prescription medications, though our population only rose about 21%.   

Of course, much of this medication is life-saving or at least life improving, and we would not want to live in a world without access to this important medicine.  However, much of it is inappropriate and can be avoided.  The CDC and FDA estimated in 2014 that approximately 1.3 million people went to the emergency room as a consequence of an unexpected drug reaction, resulting in about 124,000 deaths.  The reports suggest up to half of these events were avoidable.  At that rate, deaths from adverse drug reactions wind up being the fourth leading cause of death in our country, causing more deaths than pulmonary disease, AIDS, pneumonia, and car accidents.   

All of these extra events also take a major toll on our health care system.  A report by QuintilesIMS, a healthcare informatics company, estimated that $200 billion per year is spent on medical care for these adverse drug reactions.  This adds up to about 8% of the total health care spending in the U.S., ahead of the money spent on treating cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  

Although awareness is currently rising, opioids and other prescription pain medications continue to be culprits towards these staggering statistics.  There is a major issue in our country with opioid abuse and overdose.  Once again, it becomes a sticky situation because pain medication is necessary for many individuals in certain circumstances, however, it is vastly over‐prescribed to individuals who don’t need it.  In my opinion, anyone prescribed a pain medication should be given the lowest dose for the minimal amount of time possible, however, the opposite is often the case.  

So what can we do to reverse this trend?  The best thing is making sure we live healthy lifestyles.  About 45% of Americans live with at least one chronic disease, and these diseases make up the vast majority of prescriptions filled.  The research remains clear that the majority of these chronic diseases – such as heart disease or diabetes – are lifestyle related and can be avoided.  Also, if someone is in need of a prescription medication, there are some important questions to ask the physician first.  The most important thing to understand is if the medication has any side effects to look out for.  If the side effects are more severe than what you are trying to treat, it might be in your best interest to look for another form of treatment.  Also, make sure that you get a time line for how long the doctor expects you to take the drug.  Again, taking as little as possible for the shortest duration as possible is always in your best interest.  Medication is important and sometimes necessary, but we should always try to address health issues in the most natural ways possible.   

Yours in Health, Dr. Alex