Medical doctors want to help people feel and be well; however, the tools that they have at their disposal are often inadequate to get the job done. Take, for instance, the top ten highest-grossing medications in the United States; research shows that they only help between 1 in 25 to 1 in 4 of the people who take them.
Figure taken from Personalized medicine: Time for one-person trials, Nicholas J. Schork.
In fact, for some drugs, such as statins (which are routinely used to lower cholesterol) as few as 1 in 60 people may benefit.
What this means is that every day, millions of people are taking medications that will not help them. Once more, many of these drugs are actually harmful to many of the people that take them and cause side effect in almost everyone that consumes them.
“How can this be?” is a question we are frequently asked. There are many answers; far too many to cover in a blog. However, from the research that I’ve seen it comes down to a few factors: First, the methods and objectives of medical research are driven mainly by industrial priorities and the fulfillment of regulatory requirements, rather than by how the drugs may beneficially affect people’s lives. Simply said, clinical trials are designed to evaluate drugs rather than patients or diseases. The outcomes of these trials do not really tell us if they will lead to improvements in people’s lives; they tell us whether the drug fits certain criteria, and that criteria is often shaped and dictated by the pharmaceutical industry.
Second, the term efficacy merely means a higher probability of clinical improvement compared with placebo in selected end points that may or may not have any clinical relevance. Take statin drugs for instance: statins have a “number needed to treat (NNT)” – that is, the number of people who have to take a drug in order for one person to benefit – of 60 – meaning 60 people would have to take a statin drug for five years to prevent one person from having a nonfatal heart attack. Not one heart attack death would be prevented. Yet statins are prescribed to millions of people, who then think they are protected. Statins give the illusion of protection from heart attack deaths, but the fact is, the vast majority of people taking them would be much better served by exercising daily and changing their diets.
Third, the vast majority of published drug studies (over 80%) are funded by the pharmaceutical industry and it’s been estimated that over 30% of drug studies are never published – these are presumably the ones that don’t show a benefit. This leads to an incredible bias that makes it appear that medications work better than they actually do. Once more, the marketing budgets of the pharmaceutical industry are larger than the research and development costs (i.e., they spend more money on marketing the drugs than they do on researching and developing them). In addition, the pharmaceutical industry increasingly controls scientific societies and continuing medical education, and they are using this heavy influence as a new marketing strategy – one that has the appearance of scientific validity, but that in actuality is thinly veiled propaganda aimed at increasing their companies stock.
Once more, pharmaceutical marketing departments play with numbers to make mountains out of molehills (or nothing at all) – take, for instance, a study in which a control group of 1,000 people taking no heart medication suffered 24 heart attacks over a five-year period, while a group on statins suffered 16 heart attacks over that same period. Because these numbers are so small, even relatively minor differences between the incidence of heart attacks translate into an impressive-sounding difference, when you measure it as a percentage – the so-called relative risk. (Relative risk would mean you take 24-16 = 8 which is the difference in total people that had heart attacks in both groups; to get relative risk, you then divide that number by the total in the placebo group: 8/24 = 0.33 or 33%) Now you’ve got the makings of a pharmaceutical ad campaign: “Statins reduce heart attacks by 33 percent” when in reality, this difference may not even be statistically significant – meaning this difference could have occurred solely by chance. In addition, referring back to point #2 above, even if the statins in this study were responsible for fewer heart attacks, they are non-fatal hear attacks, meaning that not one life was saved due to taking the medication, but everyone that took the drug – all 1000 people – were exposed to the side effects and negative health consequences associated with statin medications.
There are many other reasons one could site for the growing disparity between the use of prescription medication and any improvements those medications may have on a person’s health, but the bottom line is this: most diseases are not a result of a drug deficiency; therefore, taking a medication will not help you eliminate the cause(s) of your condition nor will it help you substantially improve your life.
Find out how you can beneficially influence and address the root causes of what ails you; speak with your naturopathic doctor or other allied integrative care provider and get to work on making real change for the better in your life.
- Prog. Cardiovasc. Dis. 44, 479–498 (2002). &
- Drug Saf. 29, 647–656 (2006). , &
- Stolley PD, Laporte J-R. The public health, the University, and pharmacoepidemiology. In: Strom BL, editor. Pharmacoepidemiology. Chichester: Wiley; 2000. pp. 75–89.