Our prescription drugs may be doing us more harm than good

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The chilling scale of our obsessive pill popping is exposed in figures showing that over-the-counter medicine now costs the NHS nearly £10billion a year.

There are thought to be nine million people taking at least five different drugs daily.

And the NHS spends £1.6billion a year on people who have had adverse reactions to prescribed medication.

An overnight hospital stay can cost taxpayers around £700 a night. And some medics now believe most dispensed medicines do more harm than good.

Consultant cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra said: “Prescribed medication is the third most common cause of death globally after heart disease and cancer.

“We are a grossly over-medicated population and it is having a catastrophic effect.”

Dr Malhotra, who is chair of the Public Health Collaboration, a charity working to improve health and save the NHS money, added: “By deliberately misleading the medical profession, politicians and patients for the sake of profit, the pharmaceutical industry has become an enemy of democracy.”

Data shows there were 1.11 billion prescription items dispensed in England in 2020/21. The cholesterol-busting drug Atorvastatin was dished out 50 million times. And the cost of prescribing antidepressant Sertraline rocketed from £21million to £100million between 2019/20 and 2020/21.

A growing number of professionals believe the strain on the NHS could be eased by GPs suggesting self care and overthe-counter medicines for minor ailments.

It includes prescribing more socialising with friends and family to boost mental wellbeing or a brisk 30-minute walk three times a week to help someone get fitter.

Other therapies include reducing salt intake to less than 6g a day to help slash high blood pressure and joining weight loss groups. Experts said these measures could save the health service millions.

Prescription prices rose by 3.49 percent – and increase of £324million – to £9.6billion in 2020/21. It is the second consecutive year the cost of items dispensed in England went up after three consecutive years of decline up to 2018/19.

Medication for cardiovascular complaints accounted for 30 percent of all items. Some experts believe genetic testing could herald a new era of prescribing, potentially saving the NHS more than £1billion a year, by slashing adverse drug reactions said to affect 15 percent of all hospital inpatients. Clare Brenner, chief executive of genetic testing company Myogenes, said: “Around one in five prescriptions for older people living at home may be inappropriate.”

She said a saliva genetic test could reduce the risk of adverse drug reaction which she said was a leading cause of death. One in five hospital admissions in the over-65s is from medicine side effects.

It is thought the number of medicines prescribed each year could be cut by 110 million items. Professor Karol Sikora, Daily Express columnist and former director of the WHO Cancer Programme, said: “Countless times I’ve spoken with patients who are complaining of fatigue, muscle pain, mental distress or many other ailments and after looking at the list of medication it’s clear why.

They just didn’t need to be taking half of the drugs they were on. We desperately need a smarter approach.”The Government-backed review of the drugs crisis recommends research and training to improve prescribing.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “More needs to be done to tackle overprescribing.”


Dr Aseem Malhotra demands you ask your doctor these five simple questions.

  • Do I really need this pill?
  • What are the absolute benefits and risks for me?
  • Is this data from a drug company a sponsored study or one that is independent?
  • Are there simpler or safer options?
  • What happens if I do nothing?


Comment by Aseem Malhotra

It’s been almost a decade since one of the world’s most respected medical journals, the BMJ, launched a campaign to wind back the harms of “too much medicine” Finally, the Department of Health and Social Care has acknowledged that one in 10 drugs prescribed on the NHS is completely unnecessary.

Although welcome, this is only the tip of the iceberg of one of the greatest threats to public health. Prescribed medication is the third most common cause of death globally after heart disease and cancer What patients aren’t told is that most don’t derive any benefit from the pills that are taken to manage the big drivers of chronic disease such as heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

So how did we end up in such a dire health situation? The real culprit is the pharmaceutical industry which manipulates research studies and exaggerates the benefit of medications whilst hiding data on harms from doctors.

Although the drug industry has a legal obligation to provide profit for their shareholders they don’t have an obligation to give you the best treatment.

When asked on BBC Breakfast what was at the root of our NHS not being able to cope, I said it was our failure to tackle poor diet and an over-medicated population because the business model of Big Food and Bad Pharma is one of fraud. Whether you decide to take the pill or not understand one thing – good health doesn’t come out of a medicine bottle.

  • Aseem Malhotra is Consultant Cardiologist


Comment by Karol Sikora

Medicine has come a long way since I started studying it over 50 years ago.

Life expectancy has skyrocketed and that’s largely due to advancements in how we treat illness and disease.

Drugs play an important role in that, which should not be underestimated. But virtually all drugs have unwanted side effects and we have to be aware of the dangers of over-prescribing.

The skill of the doctor is to balance the risks versus benefits of any treatment. It’s a balancing act – usually we get it right but it can go wrong, and that’s underlined by the recent Health Department report.

I fully support its findings, and I’m pleased to see the Government acting on it.

If one tenth of medications dispensed are unnecessary, or even causing damage, then we need to rethink the system. It would save time, money and most importantly could spare patients from distress and pain.

When so many hospital admissions are caused by adverse reactions to drugs, it makes sense that unnecessary medications should be cut out.

The report estimates that 15 percent of people are on five or more medicines a day. For many they will be necessary, but I suspect that for some they may not.

Prescriptions are repeated automatically by computer and the patient often doesn’t question it.

We desperately need a smarter approach to this. Pharmacists and doctors need to work together. Sometimes less is more.

  • Karol Sikora is the Former Director of WHO Cancer Programme

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