Is Your Medicine Making You Sick?

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Knowing When to Trust a Drug

green and white pill

This spike is not fueled just by recent surprise findings, such as research showing that the diabetes drug Avandia increases heart-attack risk or connecting the anemia medications Procrit, Epogen and Aranespto shortened overall survival in women with breast or cervical cancer. Many long established blockbusters, among them statins and newer antidepressants, have well-known serious side effects. "These potent drugs offer some important advantages but there is often a price to pay," says Curt Furberg, M.D.,Ph.D.,a coauthor of the recent study and professor of public health at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

A sweeping overhaul of the FDA that became law late last year should help remedy some of the more glaring flaws in the prescripion-drug surveillance system. But it will be two to three years before most changes start making a difference, experts estimate. And nothing in the law speaks to another source of drug-safety problems: deadline-driven drug approvals. Drugs rushed to market had five times the rate of severe side effects requiring recall as those not released this way, according to a Harvard University study in the March 2008 New England Journal of Medicine.

As my husband and I learned, the other safety net consumers count on -- the wisdom and expertise of our own doctors -- also can fail. In a 2006 UCLA study that involved surveys of both doctors and patients, as well as taped transcripts of actual office visits, physicians neglected to mention potential side effects of medications they were prescribing two thirds of the time. When they did, they often downplayed the dangers to the point of trivializing them.

Some side effects are rare and many are undoubtedly worth tolerating to treat, control or cure a serious illness that may be far more dangerous. What's more, doctors have many topics to cover in the short time today's managed care lets them spend with patients. But patients should be warned about known side effects, alerted to how to handle potentially dangerous ones and listened to about their concerns. They should also keep the drug information they're given to show their doctor in case of side effects. This is especially important for women, who take more drugs than men and metabolize some of them differently.

Continued on page 3:  What the FDA Doesn't Know...


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