The medical profession which John Abramson writes about in Overdosed America does not resemble a Norman Rockwell painting in any way. The current state of affairs is rather more dangerous and damaging – for both Americans’ health and their pocketbooks – than even your family doctor may realize. Overdosed America charts how this state of affairs came about, what the costs have been in both dollars and lives, and what Abramson, a practicing physician and teacher at Harvard, sees as the best case scenario to fix current problems and reform the system to meet current and future needs.
Where the book really shines is in Abramson’s detailed chapters exploring how the medical industry has, since World War Two, valued profits over lives when developing treatments for everything from menopause to heart disease. These chapters constitute the bulk of the book and have a tendency to feel long and dry, a problem for a book written for a lay audience. I fought the urge to skip ahead to the last three chapters, Abramson’s recommendations, mainly out of a perverse desire to see how often the drug companies have defrauded and deceived the public. The facts disclosed here are truly stunning, and worth reading for shock value alone. But they also go a long way toward creating a fuller picture of the crisis in American health care.
Time and again Abramson painstakingly details the triumph of commercial interests over scientific evidence. As familiar as this refrain is to anyone familiar with the Bush administration, Abramson traces the beginnings of this state of affairs to the Food and Drug Administration’s 1942 approval of Premarin (estrogen) “for the treatment of symptoms associated with menopause.” (159) Wyeth-Ayerst still holds the patent for processing “PREgnant MARe’s urine” into a drug effective at relief of symptoms felt by a minority of women, which “last no more than two to five years.” (ibid.) Marketed as part of a hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to protect all women against the ravages of old age, over 20 million American women bought into this therapy. Effects of HRT included: a “66% higher chance of getting breast cancer,” a 50% increase in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and a 15% chance of suffering at least one “adverse event” – heart attack, stroke, blood clots, dementia, breast cancer, and so on – after five years of therapy. (ibid.)
Abramson discusses many other cases, all with the same bottom line: American pocketbooks are more important to the medical industry than American lives. If this doesn’t sound like an urgent problem in need of an immediate solution, next time you’re over at your grandparent’s house, open up their Reader’s Digest. About 40% of the advertisements are for new and popular drugs.