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How Scientific Is Modern Medicine, Really?

Written by Dana Ullman, M.P.H.   
Wednesday, 01 September 2010 00:00
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How Scientific Is Modern Medicine, Really?
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the Hippocratic tradition of “First, do no harm.” Sadly, however, it seems that too few doctors understand or respect this Hippocratic dictum.

Pharmaceutical Overload

Today in America, every man, woman, and child is prescribed, on average, around 13 prescription drugs per year (not counting the many over-the-counter drugs that doctors prescribe, or which patients take on their own). Just 12 years earlier, Americans were prescribed, on average, fewer than eight drugs per person. That’s a 62 percent increase in little over a decade! This practice of “polypharmacy” is increasing substantially. Big Pharma is pushing it hard and benefiting from it in a big, big way.

According to a 2008 nationwide survey, 29 percent of Americans used at least five prescription medications concurrently. Three years prior, a different survey showed that only 17 percent took three or more prescription drugs at the same time. Problems arise when drugs are not tested for approval in conjunction with other drugs, and the safety and efficacy of the use of multiple drugs together remains totally unknown.

Even conservative publications such as Scientific American can no longer deny the increasingly serious problems caused by pharmaceuticals. A recent article highlighted the fact that in the past seven years there has been a 65 percent increase in drug overdoses leading to hospitalization or death.

Drugs for Young and Old

We all want drugs given to infants to be as safe as possible, but parents will be surprised to learn that very few drugs are ever tested on infants. A 2007 study of over 350,000 children found that an alarming 78.7 percent of children in hospitals are prescribed drugs the FDA hasn’t even approved for use in children. If this isn’t shocking enough, a survey in England found that 90 percent of infants there were prescribed drugs that were not tested for safety or efficacy in infants.

There is almost a 350 percent increase in adverse drug reactions in children prescribed off-label drugs than in children who were prescribed drugs that have been tested for safety and efficacy. Doctors are committing “medical child abuse” on a regular basis.

An even stronger case can be made for the epidemic of “elder medical abuse” due to the much larger number of drugs prescribed for our senior citizens. It is no wonder that so many of them have become mental zombies, while Big Pharma profits big-time, and insurance companies simply raise their rates.

If we were living a lot longer and the quality of our lives was improved by medical care, one could make a case that today’s medical care provides more benefits than problems. But this is simply not true.

We are often told that the average lifespan is longer than ever, but this is simply a clever, even tricky, use of statistics. The average lifespan has risen because there has been a considerable reduction in deaths during the first five years of life. This reduction in deaths has resulted not from the use of any specific conventional pharmaceutical agent, but primarily from a medicinal agent called “soap.” Because fewer of us are dying at an early age, our average lifespan rises. But an American who was 40 years old in 1900 had a similar chance of living to 80 as an American who was 40 in 1960.

The Guise of Science

Adherents of conventional medicine consistently assert that their methods are scientifically verified, and ridicule other methods suggested to have therapeutic or curative effects. In fact, conventional physicians have consistently worked to disallow competitors, viciously attacking those in their own profession who have questioned conventional treatments or provided alternative modalities. More recently, medical organizations simply work with insurance companies to help them determine what should and shouldn’t get reimbursed—a clever, bloodless way to kill competition.

Yet strangely enough, whatever conventional medicine was in vogue in one decade often is declared ineffective, dangerous and sometimes barbaric in the next. Despite this pattern, proponents and defenders of “scientific medicine” tend to have little or no humility, continually asserting that today’s cure is truly effective— and labeling any alternatives to this ever-changing treatment as quackery, sheer quackery, whether they know anything about these alternative treatment modalities or not.

One of the remarkable features of conventional medicine, for which it should be honored, is its history of consistently and repeatedly disproving its own treatments. The fact that only a handful of conventional drugs have survived 30 or more years is a strong testament that conventional medicine is honorable enough to acknowledge its mistakes. But because drug patents only last for a limited time, there are substantial benefits when drugs have a relatively short lifespan. Big Pharma can charge big money during this time frame, and then, when the drug goes off-patent, can develop a new, high-priced drug to replace it. Like the fashion industry, medical fashion changes rapidly, supporting a powerful economic arms race.