Why we should NOT hate taking medicines

Michael E. Makover, MD FACP, Chief Medical Officer JIBEI

Many people very understandably hate to take medicines. It is a lot of bother, they can be expensive, and there is always that worry that they might do something bad to you. Taking medicines says to you that there is something wrong with you – who likes to feel that way? Besides, it seems so unnatural. 

Doctors do not like to prescribe medicines. They always have to worry that they are fiddling with Mother Nature and something unexpected might go wrong, as carefully as they try to avoid that.

Doctors use medicines because they know from experience that they can save lives, cure diseases and help people feel better, and how much worse things can be when patients do not use treatments that could have helped.

What was life like before modern medicine?

Let’s think back to just 1899:

  • The average person did not live past forty years (today it is nearly eighty, and many live far longer and better).
  • There were no statin medicines to lower cholesterol:
    • Heart attacks and strokes were extremely common.
    • There were no antibiotics to cure bacterial infections. A few examples of what that meant:
      • If a skin infection in your foot or hand began to spread up your leg or arm (called cellulitis), the only remedy was to cut it open and, most often, amputate the limb!
      • If you had pneumonia or a kidney infection or any other infection where it could not just be cut out, you were out of luck if your body could not fight it off by itself. There was primitive surgery, but it seldom worked very well and often terribly disfigured people.
      • Syphilis was widespread. It would slowly but surely destroy vital organs. It would sometimes eat away the nose until nothing was left but a hole.
      • A simple strep throat or sinus infection could be fatal.
      • There were very few vaccines:
        • Millions died of diseases today easily prevented by safe and effective vaccines for polio, tetanus, diphtheria, rabies, measles, smallpox and many more. Influenza wiped out whole populations in some years (over 50 million died in 1918).
        • There was no insulin. Children with diabetes literally starved to death, because without insulin in their bodies the food could not get into the cells that needed it.
        • Gout and rheumatoid arthritis were painfully unstoppable.
        • There were no medicines for mental disorders:
          • Patients with disabling depression, anxiety and psychosis were locked away, helpless and shunned.
          • There were no cortisone ointments or other medicines for skin diseases:
            • You were helpless against psoriasis, poison ivy, painful rashes on the backsides, allergic reactions, many other skin diseases that are painful, disfiguring, easily infected and much else. Today those skin disorders are almost always effectively treated by simple creams and, if needed, other medicines.
            • Simple eye problems could lead to blindness; today most visual damage is preventable or treatable.

That is just a few ways in which modern medicines have transformed our lives from constant fear of even the simplest diseases and given us not just much longer lives, but much better ones.

Maybe hating medicines is not a good idea.

But medicines have risks and side effects

Sure they do. So do automobiles, crossing the street, eating, swimming, cooking and everything else we do. Life is full of risks and side effects. 

We all take those risks every day because we know that having a full life is worth the risk.

We judge that the benefit of what we are doing is worth the risk. 

In some cases, we do things because we have to – not doing them would be much worse – like eating. You should not starve just to avoid the possibility of contaminated food.

The same is true for medications, but with one difference – medicines are carefully examined and regulated by the FDA and doctors are highly trained to use medications only when absolutely necessary and as safely as possible.

Most medicines are very low risk and have few side effects.  High risk medicines are used only for diseases like highly fatal cancers, because in that case the higher risk is still much less than the disease. 

Medications are worth using when the benefit you seek is worth the risk, and even more so when the risk of not using the medicine is much greater than the risk of using it.

Aren’t natural remedies much better?

Unfortunately, not at all. Please see our article on ‘natural’ remedies, "Herbal Supplements' Unnatural Risks and Recent Scandal" on our wellness website at wellness.jibei.org.  The article explains why herbal supplements and vitamins are actually not ‘natural’, rarely work as claimed and can cause more serious side effects and risks than medications (which, unlike the supplements, are carefully evaluated and regulated by the FDA). Supplements are virtually exempt from FDA regulation.

Both you and your doctor should be very careful and thoughtful about all treatments. You should only use them when the need outweighs any downsides.

The best way to think about medicines? We are all very fortunate to be living in the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth!

We should use medicines very carefully and only when they will bring significant benefit and/or prevent serious damage from disease, but avoiding them when needed will send you back to the terrible days before we had the miracles of modern medicine.