In 2012, researchers in France reported major concerns about the interplay between the pharmaceutical industry, the state and the medical profession. They estimated that up to 50% of medicines are either ineffective or even dangerous. The Guardian newspaper reported claims that removing these medicines would prevent 20,000 deaths a year, and reduce hospital admissions by up to 100,000.
The economic costs are equally startling. Removing unnecessary and hazardous drugs from the list approved by the French health service would save up to €10bn out of an annual medication budget of €36bn. This budget represents an average €532 spend per citizen. The equivalent spend in Britain at the time was €335.
The researchers were commissioned by President Sarkozy to provide evidence that could help reform the French health system in order to save costs and to make people healthier. Naturally there was heated debate about what constitutes either ineffective or dangerous drugs. But it is important to remember the other factor in this story: The attitudes of people to their medicines.
Patients and doctors collude together to take the quick and easy route to health: to pop a pill. No medical intervention is quite so painless and convenient. Great faith is put in the efficacy of drugs, and the pursuit of health is widely associated with tweaks to our biochemistry. This collusion prevents us facing up to the limitations of medicines, and compounds our reluctance to adapt our lifestyles to improve health.
There is no question that medicines and vaccinations continue to be the backbone in preventing and curing a wide range of diseases. But we overestimate substantially how much can be achieved through pharmaceutical interventions. We would be wise to moderate our faith in drugs.
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