The use of pharmaceutical medications is an essential element of the American health care system. For many people these prescribed drugs help to treat acute illnesses and maintain control of chronic conditions. However, medication use can also result in side effects. These may occur when treatment goes beyond the desired effect such as a hemorrhage triggered by the use of anticoagulants like warfarin or heparin; or problems that occur in addition to the desired therapeutic effect i.e. the nausea, vomiting, fatigue and hair loss associated with chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer.
In other words, side effects can occur as a result of unintentional overdosing by the patient, medication errors such as incorrect prescribing and dosing and even when drugs are taken as directed.
It seems the rates of medication-related adverse outcomes are increasing. More worrisome, this trend is likely to continue with the aging of the population, the growth in the number of comorbidities, and so called polypharmacy – when patients take multiple drugs, often way more than they need.
According to the report released last week, the number of people treated in U.S. hospitals for illnesses and injuries resulting from taking medicines jumped 52% between 2004 and 2008.
The top 5 categories of medicines that resulted in people being treated and released from emergency departments were:
- unspecified medicines
- pain killers
- tranquilizers and antidepressants
- corticosteroids and other hormones
For patients admitted to the hospital, the top five categories causing side effects and injuries were: corticosteroids, painkillers, blood-thinners, drugs to treat cancer and immune system disorders and heart and blood pressure medicines.
More than half of hospitalized patients were age 65 or older, while only 3% were under age 18. Children and teenagers accounted for 22% of emergency cases.
The increase in medication side effects coupled with the ensuing massive drain of healthcare finances and manpower suggest to us that pharmaceutical companies need to dedicate more resources to ensure that both doctors and patients are educated about side effects and how to recognize, minimize and manage them.