The all-American drug problem no one is talking about

I think we can all agree that America has a drug problem.

Except the one I’m talking about is ruining the lives of perfectly regular folks — people who you wouldn’t necessarily suspect of having a “drug habit.” But their lives are hanging in the balance, nevertheless.

And doctors are directly to blame.

Technically, it’s known as “polypharmacy.” And it’s a problem that mainstream medicine has all but single-handedly created, with its insistence on doling out prescriptions like candy.

It’s practically criminal the number of medications people — and especially older people — are prescribed today. That’s why one of my main goals for new patients is to reduce their pharmaceutical intake — a goal that they usually share with me when they come into my office.

And if you had a look at some of these patients’ medication lists, you’d understand why.

Once, before I was in private practice and was still a resident in training, I had a visit from a patient who was on more than two dozen different meds. My teaching physician at the time was British. (One of the many reasons I admire the principles behind the British health care system so much.) And he said something that has stuck with me throughout my entire career: “She’s on so many medications that if you shake her, she will rattle.”

It was the worst case of “polypharmacy” I’ve ever seen. We proceeded to wean this patient off of most of these drugs. She was discharged from the hospital taking only seven. And needless to say, she felt 1,000 times better.

I really shouldn’t have to point out that taking pharmaceutical drugs isn’t a situation where more is better (at least, not in the vast majority of cases). And yet doctors routinely prescribe medications for something that can (and should) be a temporary problem — and then never take you off them.

Therein lies the problem, of course. Big Pharma’s bread and butter lies in the long-term treatment of chronic conditions. Multiple conditions means multiple medications. Which raises the chances of dangerous interactions and side effects.

To make matters worse, these prescriptions often come from different doctors who aren’t talking to each other — either specialists, or random staff physicians at hospitals. The end result is a whole lot of unnecessary pills…all of which can contribute to brain fog, falls, bleeding problems, low blood pressure, and breathing issues in seniors.

In fact, reports suggest that half of all hospitalized older adults end up suffering drug-related complications — a recurring problem that tacks days onto the average stay. The Institute of Medicine attributes half a million adverse events to these drug-related complications in any given year.

And besides the devastating toll it takes on patients’ health, this problem is costing us upwards of $4 billion per year.

But that’s not the only way “polypharmacy” is draining your wallet. Even if older patients aren’t actually suffering any serious side effects from the laundry list of drugs they’re prescribed, studies suggest that nearly half of all elderly patients leave the hospital on a drug they don’t actually need.

Of course, these figures are all based on prescriptions given and interactions experienced during hospital stays. But frequently, problems don’t crop up until after discharge. Research shows a high rate of drug-related complications in the first 45 days at home after a hospital stay.

Roughly five percent of these adverse reactions are potentially lethal. And at least 35 percent of them are entirely preventable.

The frightening fact is, physicians have unwittingly become one of the leading causes of death in America — due in large part to their role as pushers for Big Pharma’s ever-expanding catalogue of pills.

And there’s no excuse for it — especially since the American Geriatrics Society keeps a list of medications that can be potentially harmful for seniors. It’s called the Beers list. And while all health professionals should be familiar with it, that doesn’t mean they are.

So make sure you bring a list of all your current medications to every appointment. And the next time your doctor whips out the prescription pad, do a double take before heading out to the pharmacy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or get a second opinion, first. It just might save your life.