Is America prescribing too many drugs?

PHOENIX - What do 88 percent of people over the age of 60 and 22 percent of children under the age of 12 have in common?

They’re all on at least one daily medication in the United States. America leads the way in innovative health care and medical solutions, but we also take far more prescription drugs than any other country.

So are we becoming an over-medicated society, or simply treating conditions as they should be treated?

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey , Americans spent more than $234 billion on prescription drugs last year, up from $105 billion in 1999. As a country, we clearly invest in medicine, but is it for the right reasons?

As Nicholas Bakalar argues in the New York Times , “In today’s fast-paced, stress-filled world, millions are becoming increasingly dependent on prescription drugs. Often, people are looking for the “quick cure” for all ailments, from headaches to heart disease.”

On the contrary, those same drugs are saving people’s lives. My own mother has too much iron in her blood, and without taking a pill everyday, she would die like my great grandfather did when the pill was not developed.

The concern for many, however, is that doctors and patients are too quick to go to a pill to solve a problem.

Dr. Raymond Woosley of the University of Arizona, who was a candidate to become the FDA commissioner, stated, “I think Americans need to recognize that every time they put a pill in their mouth, especially a new pill that they’ve never taken before, it’s an experiment.”

Some say experimenting is exactly what the United States is doing with prescription drugs. Consider these statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Coalition on Health Care:

• From 1999-2002, the average number of Americans using at least one prescription drug in the past month was 45 percent.
• 1.6 billion drugs were ordered or provided during physician office visits in 2003.
• By 2004, one in six individuals—almost 17 percent of the population—was taking three or more medications.
• Five out of six persons ages 65 and older take at least one medication, with almost 50 percent taking three or more.
• Adult use of antidepressants nearly tripled during the periods of 1988-1994 and 1999-2000. For example, as of December 2004, 10 percent of adult women were taking antidepressants.

According to a British health survey , measured by volume of use per capita, Americans consume more prescription drugs than any other country. We’re number one (Spain ranked second, and France was third. New Zealand, Sweden, and Germany ranked at the bottom)!

The researchers suggest, in short, that we as Americans are addressing the effects of bad health, not the cause—more often than not.

You might not necessarily believe that, but the next time an unpleasant or painful symptom arises, perhaps think about why you’re going to the medicine chest and not somewhere else.


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