America was rudely awakened to a new kind of danger on September 11, 2001: Terrorism.
The attacks that day left 2,996 people dead, including the passengers on the four
commercial airliners that were used as weapons. Many feel it was the most tragic
day in U.S. history.
Four commercial jets crashed that day. But what if six jumbo jets crashed every
day in the United States, claiming the lives of 783,936 people every year? That
would certainly qualify as a massive tragedy, wouldn't it?
Well, forget "what if." The tragedy is happening right now. Over
750,000 people actually do die in the United States every year, although not
from plane crashes. They die from something far more common and rarely perceived
by the public as dangerous: modern medicine.
According to the groundbreaking 2003 medical report Death by Medicine, by Drs.
Gary Null, Carolyn Dean, Martin Feldman, Debora Rasio and Dorothy Smith, 783,936
people in the United States die every year from conventional medicine mistakes.
That's the equivalent of six jumbo jet crashes a day for an entire year. But
where is the media attention for this tragedy? Where is the government support
for stopping these medical mistakes before they happen?
After 9/11, the White House gave rise to the Department of Homeland Security,
designed to prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Since its inception, billions
of dollars have been poured into it. The 2006 budget allots $34.2 billion to
the DHS, a number that has come down slightly from the $37.7 billion budget
According to the study led by Null, which involved a painstaking review of
thousands of medical records, the United States spends $282 billion annually
on deaths due to medical mistakes, or iatrogenic deaths. And that's a conservative
estimate; only a fraction of medical errors are reported, according to the study.
Actual medical mistakes are likely to be 20 times higher than the reported number
because doctors fear retaliation for those mistakes. The American public heads
to the doctor's office or the hospital time and again, oblivious of the alarming
danger they're heading into. The public knows that medical errors occur, but
they assume that errors are unusual, isolated events. Unfortunately, by accepting
conventional medicine, patients voluntarily continue to walk into the leading
cause of death in America.
According to a 1995 U.S. iatrogenic report, "Over a million patients are
injured in U.S. hospitals each year, and approximately 280,000 die annually
as a result of these injuries. Therefore, the iatrogenic death rate dwarfs the
annual automobile accident mortality rate of 45,000 and accounts for more deaths
than all other accidents combined." This report was issued 10 years ago,
when America had 34 million fewer citizens and drug company scandals like the
Vioxx recall were yet to occur. Today, health care comprises 15.5 percent of
the United States' gross national product, with spending reaching $1.4 trillion
Since Americans spend so much money on health care, they should be getting
a high quality of care, right? Unfortunately, that's not the case. Of the 783,936
annual deaths due to conventional medical mistakes, about 106,000 are from prescription
drugs, according to Death by Medicine. That also is a conservative number. Some
experts estimate it should be more like 200,000 because of underreported cases
of adverse drug reactions.
Americans today are used to fixing problems the quick way – even when
it comes to their health. Thus, they rely heavily on prescription drugs to fix
their diseases. For every conceivable ailment – real or not – chances
are there's a pricey prescription drug to "treat" it. Chances are
even better that their drug of choice comes chock full of side effects.
The problem is, prescription drugs don't treat diseases; they merely cover
the symptoms. U.S. physicians provide allopathic health care – that is,
they care for disease, not health. So, the over-prescription of drugs and medications
is designed to treat disease instead of preventing it. And because there are
so many drugs available, unforeseen adverse drug reactions are all too common,
which leads to the highly conservative annual prescription drug death rate of
106,000. Keep in mind that these numbers came before the Vioxx scandal, and
Cox-2 inhibitor drugs could ultimately end up killing tens of thousands more.
American medical patients are getting the short end of a rather raw deal when
it comes to prescription drugs. Medicine is a high-dollar, highly competitive
business. But it shouldn't be. Null's report cites the five most important aspects
of health that modern medicine ignores in favor of the almighty dollar: Stress,
lack of exercise, high calorie intake, highly processed foods and environmental
toxin exposure. All these things are putting Americans in such poor health that
they run to the doctor for treatment. But instead of doctors treating the causes
of their poor health, such as putting them on a strict diet and exercise regimen,
they stuff them full of prescription drugs to cover their symptoms. Using this
inherently faulty system of medical treatment, it's no wonder so many Americans
die from prescription drugs. They're not getting better; they're just popping
drugs to make their symptoms temporarily go away.
But not all doctors subscribe to this method of "treatment." In fact,
many doctors are just as angry as the public should be, charging that scientific
medicine is "for sale" to the highest bidder – which, more often
than not, end up being pharmaceutical companies. The pharmaceutical industry
is a multi-trillion dollar business. Companies spend billions on advertising
and promotions for prescription drugs. Who can remember the last time they watched
television and weren't bombarded with ads for pills treating everything from
erectile dysfunction to sleeplessness? And who has ever been to a doctor's office
or hospital and not seen every pen, notepad and post-it bearing the logo of
some prescription drug?
Medical experts claim that patients' requests for certain drugs have no effect
on the number of prescriptions written for that drug. Pharmaceutical companies
claim their drug ads are "educational" to the public. The public believes
the FDA reviews all the ads and only allows the safest and most effective drug
ads to reach the public. It's a clever system: Pharmaceutical companies influence
the public to ask for prescription drugs, the public asks their physicians to
prescribe them certain drugs, and doctors acquiesce to their patients' requests.
Everyone's happy, right? Not quite, since the prescription drug death toll continues
The public seems to genuinely believe that drugs advertised on TV are safe,
in spite of the plethora of side effects listed by the commercial's narrator,
ranging from diarrhea to death. Patients feel justified in asking their physicians
to prescribe them a particular drug they've seen on TV, since it surely must
be safe or it wouldn't have been advertised. Remember all those TV ads heralding
the wonders of Vioxx? One might wonder how many lives could have been spared
if patients didn't see the ad on TV and request a prescription from their doctors.
But advertising isn't the only tool the pharmaceutical industry uses to influence
medicine. Null's study cites an ABC report that said pharmaceutical companies
spend over $2 billion sending doctors to more than 314,000 events every year.
While doctors are riding the dollar of pharmaceutical companies, enjoying all
the many perks of these "events," how likely are they to question
the validity of drug companies or their products?
Admittedly, not all doctors reside in the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies.
Some are downright angry at the situation, and angry on behalf of an unaware
public. Major conflicts of interest exist between the American public, the medical
community and the pharmaceutical industry. And although the public suffers the
most from this conflict, it is the least informed. The public gets the short
end of the stick and they don't even know it. That is why the pharmaceutical
industry remains a multi-trillion dollar business.
Prescription drugs are only a part of the U.S. healthcare system's miserable
failings. In fact, outpatient deaths, bedsore deaths and malnutrition deaths
each account for higher death rates than adverse drug reactions. The problems
run deep and cannot be remedied without drastic, widespread change in the system's
money and ethics.
The first issue – money – is the main reason the medical industry
cannot seem to change. Prescribing more drugs and recommending more surgeries
means more profits. Getting more drugs approved by the FDA, regardless of their
safety, means more money for the pharmaceutical industry. As the healthcare
system stands today, physicians and drug companies can't seem to pass up earning
loads of money, even if a few hundred thousand people lose their lives in the
process. Even in drastic cases of deadly drugs, everyone involved has a scapegoat:
Drug companies can blame the FDA for approving their product and the doctors
for over-prescribing it, and doctors can blame the patients for wanting it and
not properly weighing the risks.
What ultimately arises is a question of ethics. In layman's terms, ethics are
the rules or moral guidelines that govern the conduct of people or professions.
Some ethics are ingrained from childhood, but some are specifically set forth.
For example, nearly all medical schools have their new doctors take a modern
form of the Hippocratic Oath. While few versions are identical, none include
setting aside proper medical care in favor of money-making practices.
On the research side of the issue, "Death by Medicine" cites an ABC
report that says clinical trials funded by pharmaceutical companies show a 90
percent chance that a drug will be perceived as effective, whereas clinical
trials not funded by drug companies show only a 50 percent chance that a drug
will be perceived as effective. "It appears that money can’t buy
you love, but it can buy you any 'scientific' result you want," writes
Null and his team of researchers.
The government spends upwards of $30 billion a year on homeland security. Such
spending seems important. Since 2001, 2,996 people in the United States have
died from terrorism – all as a result of the 9/11 attacks. In that same
period of time, 490,000 people have died from prescription drugs, not counting
the Vioxx scandal. That means that prescription drugs in this country are at
least 16,400 percent deadlier than terrorism. Again, those are the conservative
numbers. A more realistic number, which would include deaths from over-the-counter
drugs, makes drug consumption 32,000 percent deadlier than terrorism. But the
scope of "Death by Medicine" is even wider. Conventional medicine,
including unnecessary surgeries, bedsores and medical errors, is 104,700 percent
deadlier than terrorism. Yet, our government's attention and money is not put
into reforming health care.
Couldn't a little chunk of the homeland security money be better spent on overhauling
the corrupt U.S. healthcare system, the leading cause of death in America? Couldn't
we forfeit the color-coded threat system in favor of stricter guidelines on
medical research and prescription drugs? No one is attempting to say that terrorism
in the world is not a problem, especially for a high-profile country like the
United States. No one is saying that the people who died on 9/11 didn't matter
or weren't horribly wronged by the terrorists that day. But there are more dangerous
things in the United States being falsely represented as safe and healthy, when,
in reality, they are deadly. The corruption in the pharmaceutical industry and
in America's healthcare system poses a far greater threat to the health, safety
and welfare of Americans today than terrorism.
If the Bush Administration really wants to save lives -- a lot of lives --
it needs look no further than the chemical war has been declared on Americans
by Big Pharma.