Because medicine is prescribed when you are sick or injured, the term comes with a positive connotation of healing or being beneficial to the human body. In fact, according to the CDC, 82% of American adults take at least one medication, with 29% taking five or more, and in 2012, 2.3 billion drugs were ordered or provided at physician office visits alone. However, an often forgotten piece of the puzzle is the danger that certain medications and prescriptions can present. The CDC also estimates that 700,000 emergency room visits and 120,000 hospitalizations are due to adverse drug events each year while the FDA says that adverse drug reactions are the 4th leading cause of death in the United States, ahead of pulmonary disease, diabetes, AIDs, and car accidents at over 100,000 deaths annually.
Although there are often few alternatives, many prescription medicines come with a certain level of risk. Given the frequency that many of us take them, having an understanding of the danger it can pose is important for a large portion of Americans.
Total Number of Prescriptions Dispensed in the United States (2009-2015)
Antibiotics are one of the top medications that lead to adverse effects in patients, resulting in 140,000 emergency room visits each year. They are responsible for almost 1/5th of all emergency visits relating to adverse drug events (ADEs) and 4/5th of these visits are caused due to allergic reactions with the antibiotic.
Moreover, due to the over-prescribing of many antibiotics, the threat of antibiotic resistant infections which have adapted to become stronger over time, is already very real. The CDC estimates that at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics each year, with 23,000 people dying as a result. Because of the high rate of adverse side effects and increasing resistance by many forms of bacteria, minimizing unnecessary antibiotic use will be necessary to reducing the instances of ADEs and slowing down the creation of antibiotic resistant superbugs going forward.
Although they are used to treat a wide range of issues involving pain, opioid painkillers are one of the most addictive and dangerous substances on the planet. According to the American Society of Medicine, in 2014, there were almost 19,000 overdose deaths related to prescription pain killers and its estimated that about 18 women die every day from prescription painkiller overdose. Moreover, long term use can lead to physical and/or mental dependence on the drug. For this reason, opioids are considered a schedule II substance under the United States Controlled Substances Act.
Even though insulin is an important piece of diabetes treatment, it has a history of causing ADEs. From 2007 to 2011, almost 100,000 emergency room visits occurred because of errors associated with taking insulin and in 2/3rds of these visits, patients experienced serious complications such as shock or loss of consciousness. Although poor meal planning can also play a role in these mishaps, the fickle nature of insulin cannot be underestimated.
According to a 2011 study, 11% of Americans over the age of 12 take some form of antidepressant medication. However, they can have a wide range of negative effects, including symptoms of nausea, insomnia, irritability, agitation, fatigue, and loss of sexual desire. Although they do not cause ADEs in the same manner as the previous medicines listed, a recent study found that common antidepressants can double the risk of suicide and aggressive behavior. Considering that nearly 30,000 Americans commit suicide each year, one can assume that antidepressants have played a role in a large portion of these deaths.
What Does This Mean?
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, but takes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs. If these numbers are true, our dependence and usage of certain medicines presents an interesting dilemma. Any medication error attorney will agree that advances in modern medicine have increased our life spans, but it has also caused adverse health events for thousands of people. As we move further into the future, the importance of recognizing medicine safety will be just as important as finding new treatments for different illnesses.