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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ads can’t tell us when we’re sick

The Spokesman-Review

Spending on prescription drugs in America increased by only 10.7 percent in 2003. That’s better than the 14.9 percent increase in 2002, and in the world of runaway health-care inflation, that’s considered a victory. But before the nation can put a serious dent in drug prices, it must cast a skeptical eye on the cozy relationship between the medical community and drug companies.

A Seattle Times series shows that the ever-lowering threshold for what needs to be treated is driving up health-care spending. A blood pressure reading that used to be considered in the safe range can lead to a prescription for a hypertension drug. A patient who was somewhat overweight can be deemed “obese” without the scales ever fluctuating.

The troubling aspect of this “Suddenly Sick Syndrome” is that many physicians and researchers who determine these guidelines have ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Add to this the explosion in “ask your doctor” advertisements, and it’s no wonder Americans take medications at such a high clip. New Zealand is the only other industrialized country where drug companies can make direct pitches to consumers.

In a 2003 Food and Drug Administration survey, 80 percent of doctors said the ads posed a problem, but 57 percent of them still prescribed a drug if patients asked for it. Doctors often rely on drug-company-sponsored seminars to learn about the efficacy of new drugs. Sometimes the risks and side effects are played down or concealed.

Government health officials may also help drug companies create new markets. Aventis, which makes an anti-blood-clotting drug, began a “Killer Legs” ad campaign, which targeted airline passengers. It claims that they are at risk for deep vein thrombosis because they sit for long periods of time. No studies backed such a finding; nonetheless after an Aventis-financed event for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Public Health Association, conference leaders added airline travel to the list of risk factors for DVT.

Nine of the 11 authors of the National Institutes of Health guidelines calling for wider use of hypertension drugs were connected to drug companies. At the World Health Organization, 17 of 18 members of a hypertension committee had drug company ties. Because so many doctors have drug-company connections, medical journals are finding it increasingly difficult to publish research that isn’t tainted by conflicts of interest.

A sane health-care system would target the best outcomes for patients while trying to control costs. But that’s not the principle that drives American health care, and that’s why it is the most expensive in the world.

Drug companies have produced tremendous remedies over the years, but their influence over the medical community has warped health-care delivery in America and exacerbated the spiraling costs that affect every segment of society. They should be kept at a safe distance.

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