Your Health: Beware of the latest and greatest drugs

The drug industry is huge. Over 3 billion prescriptions are filled in the United States every year. Drugs are advertised on television and in magazines. Have you listened to all the bad side effects that are rattled off on TV, or read the two pages of information in magazine advertisements. The fact is that the drug companies are advertising to us, the consumer. We, in turn, ask our doctors to prescribe the latest and greatest thing. The problem is that the latest is often far from the greatest.

There are some drugs that have been in use for decades, work perfectly well, and are relatively inexpensive. Yet, the drug companies are constantly pushing the “new and improved” drugs. Sometimes they are better; sometimes not. But the reason the drug companies constantly push new drugs is the huge profit that those drugs generate. New drugs can be patented. That means no one else can sell the generic version of that drug for the life of the patent.

A huge problem is that many of the drugs that are approved today may be withdrawn in a year or two after unexpected and dangerous side effects, or even deaths, are reported. While the drug companies test new drugs and present their findings to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval, it is often not until a drug is widely disseminated that problems may become known. This has occurred time and time again, often with dire consequences for patients injured by these drugs. That’s the reason there are major drug lawsuits, such as the ones involving Vioxx which is thought to have caused 60,000 deaths from problems not discovered until five years after the drug was introduced. Many other drugs, such as Chantix, Phen-fen and Yaz, once thought completely safe, were later found to have very serious side effects that resulted in tens of thousands of serious injuries. If there is an existing drug that does the same thing that as the new drug your doctor wants to give you, ask for the older one. Let someone else be the guinea pig. Of course, if a new drug is the only treatment for an illness, you may have no choice, especially if you have a serious illness.

Aside from drugs that are dangerous in and of themselves, there are times when doctors prescribe drugs for “off label” use. Drug companies develop and tests drugs for limited purposes. FDA approval is given for only the particular uses for which the drug was tested, and the drug companies are permitted to advertise the drug only for those specified purposes. Your doctor, however, is not similarly restricted. Once a drug is FDA approved, any doctor can prescribe that drug for anything under the sun. There are often sound reasons for such off label use. For example, Neurontin was developed as an anti-seizure medication. Over time, physicians realized that Neurontin worked as a non-narcotic pain reliever, and it is now widely used for that purpose.

Unfortunately, doctors sometimes prescribe drugs for off label use where there is little evidence that the drug is effective for that use. The internet makes it easy to check if the drug is for an approved use or not. If the drug is for an off label use, ask your doctor why it was prescribed for you.

Another major problem is drug interactions. The reason your doctor always asks what drugs you are taking is to make sure that the combination of drugs will not cause new problems. That is a good reason to always bring a list of your medications and doses to every doctor’s appointment. Also, try to use one pharmacy to buy your drugs. The pharmacist can frequently spot a potential problem with drug interactions. That only works if the same pharmacy fills all your prescriptions.