The Big Lie Doctors Tell

Doctors, hospitals and drug companies constantly claim that the modern medical profession has, during the last century or so, dramatically improved life expectation.

Looked at superficially the statistics seem to support this claim.

And it is undeniable that there are more 70, 80 and 90 year olds around now than there were a century ago.

The idea that doctors have pretty well conquered illness and are helping us defy death itself is a warm, comforting one.

But it's a fraud. A great big lie worthy of the most devious politician.

The truth is quite different.

The truth is that a century or so ago many newborn babies never saw their first birthday. They were killed, largely, by infectious diseases. Cholera, smallpox and typhoid killed millions.

The big change that has taken place has involved not doctors but better sewage facilities, cleaner water supplies, more spacious homes, more food and better built towns and cities. All these things have helped slash infant mortality rates.

And so people seem to be living longer.

If 50 people out of 100 all die just after birth and the other 50 live to be 90-years-old then the average life expectancy is just over 45 years.

But if 50 people out of a hundred live to be just 50-years-old and the other 50 reach 90 then the average life expectancy is 70 years.

Today, there are more old people around because less are dying as infants. And, of course, as the population grows so the number of old people increases.

Moreover, the evidence shows not that doctors and drug companies are saving a vast number of lives but that the modern medical profession has become a danger.

Which of these people do you think poses the greatest threat to your life: a burglar, a mugger, a drunken driver, a drug-crazed lunatic or a temporarily insane relative running amok with a sharp knife?

It's none of them.

The person most likely to kill you is your doctor.

That may seem a scary thought. But it's true.

Hidden away in the world's medical journals there is now a staggering amount of evidence to show that modern western doctors, equipped with fancy drugs, exotic forms of surgery and impressive sounding radiotherapy techniques, are ranked alongside cancer, heart disease and stroke as major killers.

Four out of ten patients who are given drugs suffer serious and sometimes potentially lethal side effects. If the drug you're prescribed is going to save your life that's probably an acceptable risk. But how many patients who are merely suffering from something annoying or uncomfortable would willingly take a drug if they knew it might kill them? There are hugely profitable drugs on the market which have never saved any lives but which have killed or made ill countless thousands of people.

One in six patients in hospital in Britain is there only because he has been made ill by doctors. Most are suffering from unpleasant or downright dangerous drug side effects. In America, bad reactions to legal drugs kill far more people annually than all illegal drug use combined.

You won't hear any of this from most doctors, of course.

Doctors are notoriously reluctant to admit that the treatments they recommend can do harm. There are several reasons for this.

First, they often don't know how dangerous drugs and other treatments can be. In just about every Westernised country in the world doctors receive most of their post graduate education through meetings and journals which are sponsored by drug companies. And drug companies don't spend too much of their time warning doctors about drug side effects. Global drug companies don't exist to find cures or help people: they exist solely to make money.

Second, doctors are frightened of being sued.

Third, there are nearly half a million clinical research papers published every week. No doctor on the planet can read them all - or even have the faintest idea what warnings they might give. Useful reports are lost among the irrelevant, commercially inspired dross.

Finally, the natural human unwillingness to admit responsibility is exceptionally well developed among doctors who often think of themselves as having god-like qualities. Admitting to mistakes reminds doctors that they are human and fallible.

Happily, there are conclusions to be drawn. And advice I can give.

First, here's my list of tips for patients taking prescription drugs.

1. Always follow any specific instructions that you have been given by your doctor. Read the label on your bottle of pills and take notice of what it says! If a drug company says that the drug should be taken before meals, during meals or after meals then that's what they mean.

2. When you're not using them, drugs should be stored in a locked cupboard out of reach of children in a room where the temperature will be fairly stable. The bathroom is probably the worst room in the house for storing medicines.

3. Never take drugs prescribed for someone else. Return all unused supplies of drugs to your chemist.

4. It is wise to assume that all prescribed drugs can cause drowsiness. You shouldn't drive or operate machinery after taking a drug until you are sure that you are safe.

5. Drugs don't mix well with alcohol. If you want to drink while taking drugs ask your doctor whether it's safe to do so.

6. Don't take non-prescribed medicines while taking prescribed drugs.

7. Don't use alternative medicines either. They may not mix well.

8. Don't stop taking drugs suddenly if you have been advised to take a full course. Ring your doctor for advice if you need to stop. Some drugs have to be stopped gradually rather than abruptly.

9. Report side effects to your doctor - and ask him to report the side effects to the authorities. The vast majority of doctors never bother to report side effects - with the result that potentially hazardous drugs remain on the market for far longer than they should.

10. If you see a new doctor while taking a drug make sure he knows what you are taking - particularly if he intends to prescribe additional treatment for you. Many drugs do not mix well together and may, indeed, react together in a dangerous way. And, finally, here's my general advice for patients who are prescribed drugs by a doctor.

First, be wary about taking drugs (or, indeed, any form of treatment) that you don't need. If a doctor has his pen poised over his prescription pad ask him what will happen if you don't take the drug. Ask him about the risks. And ask him if he'd take the drug if he were suffering from your symptoms. You'll be surprised how often doctors will admit that they'd leave nature to do the healing.

Second, if given a choice between an old treatment and a new treatment, I'd always choose the old treatment. Drug side effects usually only appear with time - after thousands of patients have taken the drug. A drug that has been around for years is unlikely to turn out to be a major killer. The longer a drug has been around the more doctors will know about it. In medicine the word `new' when used to describe a drug means two things: it is expensive and no one yet knows whether it will cure you or kill you.

Third, if you take a drug that is new to you don't do it when you are alone. Anaphylactic shock reactions are commoner than most people imagine - and becoming commoner. There are around 30,000 such reactions every year in the UK. If there is someone with you they can call a doctor and an ambulance.

Fourth, never ever trust a doctor who tells you that the drug he is prescribing is free of all side effects. I will cycle on the moon when a drug is created which produces no side effects. If your doctor tells you this leave his consulting room as quickly as you can. And never go back.

Fifth, if you take three drugs and two of them are for side effects caused by the first drug then you are, in my view, probably being badly treated. Many doctors regard side effects as merely an excuse for reaching for the prescription pad. It doesn't occur to them to try another drug.

Sixth, don't just ignore it if you develop a rash, indigestion, tinnitus, a headache or some other possible side effect: report it to your doctor straight away. Don't stop medication without asking his or her advice first. Some side effects are mild and if the drug is working and helping to control or defeat a serious or life threatening condition then the side effects may be of little consequence. But other side effects may kill. Many of the thousands who die each year could still be alive if they had taken action earlier when side effects started.

Seventh, be on the look out for symptoms of problems caused by a treatment. I have over the years created a number of straightforward, common sense laws of medicine. Coleman's First Law Of Medicine is one of the most important: `If you are receiving treatment for an existing disease and you develop new symptoms then, until proved otherwise, you should assume that the new symptoms are caused by the treatment you are receiving.'

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2011

Vernon Coleman's book Coleman's Laws can be purchased via this website. Visit the Medical Books section of the bookshop on this site for full details.