I recently caught up with Melody Petersen, author of Our Daily Meds, an in-depth look at the pharmaceutical companies that have taken the reins of our faltering health care system by cleverly hawking every kind of drug imaginable. We discussed how this powerful industry has our health in its hands.
Daniela Perdomo: Your book includes some staggering stats. For example, 100,000 Americans die each year from prescription drugs — that’s 270 per day, or, as you put it, more than twice as many who are killed in car accidents each day. Could you elaborate on this? Are these people abusing their prescription drugs or is this a sign of prescription meds gone bad?
Melody Petersen: The study estimating that 100,000 Americans die each year from their prescriptions looked only at deaths from known side effects. That is, those deaths didn’t happen because the doctor made a mistake and prescribed the wrong drug, or the pharmacist made a mistake in filling the prescription, or the patient accidentally took too much. Unfortunately, thousands of patients die from such mistakes too, but this study looked only at deaths where our present medical system wouldn’t fault anyone. Tens of thousands of people are dying every year from drugs they took just as the doctor directed. This shows you how dangerous medications are.
DP: You write about a growing market for drugs for children. You say we know little about the long-term effects of prescription meds on kids. Let’s talk particularly about depression medications and ADHD meds, which seem to be what kids are mostly prescribed.
MP: In recent years, sales of drugs for children have been the industry’s fastest growing business. Doctors now prescribe pills to children for all kinds of conditions — from high cholesterol to anxiety. The market for ADHD drugs has long been a big opportunity for the industry. More recently, the companies have had their sales reps urge doctors to prescribe antidepressants, antipsychotics and other psychiatric meds to children. The result: our kids take more of those medicines than children in other countries. For example, a study last year found that American children take three times more attention deficit medications and antidepressants than children in Europe.
DP: Could you tell me how the prescription med industry is in bed with doctors?
MP: The industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars on physicians every year. In one survey, 9 out of 10 doctors said they had recently taken something of value from the drug industry. And some of those doctors take hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the industry. The drug companies pay doctors to be their so-called consultants. They also pay them to sit on corporate advisory boards and to give lectures to other doctors. They pay for up to 80 percent of the continuing medical education that doctors need to maintain their licenses. If you ask a doctor if this is a problem, they will more than likely tell you no. But the studies show that even a small gift will sway doctors to write a prescription for a certain drug. The truth is that doctors are no longer independent gatekeepers who keep us safe from drugs we don’t need. Far too many of them are financially tied to the industry. They are writing the prescriptions that their financial backers want them to write.
DP: We are the only developed country that doesn’t control prescription drug prices. Could you tell me what that means, practically, for consumers?
MP: No. There is not an ethically minded shining star. All the companies operate in a similar way. Fraud is rampant in this industry because there is so much money involved.