Just last night, a friend of mine mentioned that an acquaintance of hers, a woman in her 50s who was taking prescription drugs for several conditions including diabetes and high blood pressure, died from an overdose of legally prescribed drugs. Which is why I was not surprised by today's story in the New York Times about new data showing that the number of emergency room visits in the U.S. from the misuse of prescription drugs has nearly doubled over the last five years. I was, however, surprised by the news that these prescription overdoses outstrip emergency care for people taking illegal drugs.
Perhaps we should all be shocked by such news -- shocked enough to do something about it. The reason for these latest statistics, which come from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, is obvious: the number of Americans taking prescription drugs has soared nearly 40 percent over the past 10 years and many of those people are imbibing multiple drugs, according to a Kaiser Foundation study. The impact on health care costs is well-known: spending on prescription drugs has doubled in the last decade, thanks in large part to the pharmaceutical industry's successful marketing of expensive drugs to a much wider segment of the American public than ever before.
We've also heard about the occasional celebrity who overdoses on legal drugs -- Heath Ledger and Brittany Murphy to name two, and I've blogged about the over-medicating of children with psychoactive drugs before; see here. But now we are seeing real evidence of the damage this pattern of overuse is wreaking on many people's lives.
There is no question that many health problems are treated or effectively managed through the use of prescription drugs and that some new drugs, particularly treatments for cancer and other diseases, are keeping people alive. But too many Americans are popping pills of questionable efficacy for conditions like high cholesterol, hypertension and depression. And because the drugs are "legally" prescribed by trusted medical professionals, consumers are much too sanguine about the side effects of these medications and how they interact with each other.
The best doctors closely monitor the drugs they prescribe to their patients and are very aware of possible drug interactions. The real danger comes when patients go to more than one doctor to get prescription drugs, a much too common occurrence. That, sadly, was the case with my friend's acquaintance: she had gotten her drugs from several caregivers and simply assumed they were safe.
The Times article today talks about a give-back program instituted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, where people have been able to drop off old or unused drugs at designated locations around the country. But I think health officials should be taking a more aggressive approach, perhaps by requiring patients to sign off with one primary caregiver before they fill their prescriptions. That's just one idea; I'll leave it to wiser heads than mine to come up with some workable solutions.
In the meantime, I hope the media keeps hammering home the message -- that just because the drugs you're taking are legally prescribed doesn't mean they're any safer than the drugs you might buy from the dealer down the street. If the latest finding is any indication, they can actually be more dangerous.