In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences reported that 98,000 Americans are killed every year by medical errors. In 2004, a report by HealthGrades in an article by Medical News Today, estimates that it is closer to 195,000 deaths per year attributed to medical errors. This article can be viewed here. The vast majority were killed from mistakes in prescribing or administering drugs. The report put the cost of these errors at nine billion dollars! This information was corroborated by a 1998 report in the New England Journal of Medicine that each year 106,000 patients die and 2.2 million are injured by adverse reactions to prescription drugs. Even more shocking are the deadly side effects of common pain killers. It has been estimated that every year 16,000 people die from the side effects of pain medications such as aspirin, Advil and ibuprofen - a class of drugs called NSAIDS (that is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). This makes the use of prescription drugs the third leading cause of death behind heart disease, number 1, and cancer, number 2. Americans spend more money on healthcare that any other country, yet we are ranked 37th among all countries in overall health.
Millions of people are taking medications every day. For example, every day over 30 million Americans take antidepressants. The sale of prescription drugs is big business. Sales were $73 billion in 1994 and $84.4 billion in 1996. Fortune magazine ranked the pharmaceutical industry as the most profitable of all industries when measured by return on equity, sales and assets. These profits are being made predominately by sales to Americans. For example, the allergy drug Claritin costs almost two dollars a pill in the United States but only forty one cents in Great Britain. In countries that have national health insurance, the price of prescription drugs can be forced down. In the United States, we insure the pharmaceutical industry's profits by paying more and subsidizing lower drug costs for the rest of the industrialized world.
In March 2008, the associated press reported that the U.S. water supply contained trace amounts of an array of pharmaceuticals. These included antibiotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and sex hormones. Although they showed up in trace amounts of parts per billion or trillion, scientists and the general population are concerned about the long term consequences of these findings. The five month study analyzed the water supplies of 24 metropolitan areas. While water treatment facilities are able to filter most of the drugs out of the water, the present system obviously has its shortcomings. Benjamin Grumbes, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said "we recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously." Let's hope they do.
An article in New York magazine (May 15, 2000) discussed the role of sales representatives of drug manufacturers and their influence on doctors. According to the article, US pharmaceutical companies spent about 10 billion dollars last year on drug promotions. Most of this money went toward marketing to doctors (about $12,000 for each doctor in the United States). Drug makers command an army of 68,000 salespeople, one for every eleven doctors in the United States. While pharmaceutical companies justify high drug prices by pointing to astronomical research and development costs, many who study the industry say drug companies spend more money on marketing and promotions in the form of free lunches, free entertainment, and free gifts, such as clocks, coffee mugs, pens, etc.., with the drug's name on it. Many physicians openly admit that they decide which drugs to dispense based on the information provided by drug representatives. One doctor, Robert Goodman at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, sees a pharmaceutical/medical system in need of change. His website, www.nofreelunch.org, is a compendium of facts and research about the influence of drug companies on medicine.