Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The pharmaceutical industry and our health

If you have been following the news in the last few weeks, it will not be a surprise to hear that the giant pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has been fined a massive 3 billion dollars in the US for fraudulent selling of several of their drugs. Amongst these, an antipsychotic drug that had only been approved for adult use was being given to children; an antidepressant that had only been approved for this purpose was being promoted as a treatment for sexual dysfunction and weight loss, while evidence of potential heart risks of an antidiabetic drug was withheld in order to get another drug approved.  According to an article published in the Observer last Sunday (1), the firm managed to do all this by allocating a big chunk of its budget to “entertaining” physicians willing to promote and prescribe their drugs, and backhandedly motivating the publishing of fake articles that provided evidence for the use of these drugs.

Business is business
This outrageous behaviour poses a whole load of questions on the quality of our health care for, even though this happened in America, it is easy to believe that this kind of practice is if not company policy, then of common occurrence. Let’s not forget that the pharmaceutical industry consists of enormous organisations such as GSK that are in no way charitable. They are businesses and, like many other businesses, are prepared to go to great lengths to sell their products. Whatever the reason a doctor may have to agree to prescribe a drug for symptoms it has not been approved for, it is doubtful that it will be for the patient’s benefit. Even though it is hard to imagine that all doctors can be this irresponsible, the fact that some of them can be so easily strayed from their Hippocratic oath of “first do no harm” immediately makes us doubt all their colleagues as there will be no way of telling one from the other.

It is the role of our governments and regulatory bodies to get their act together to protect us from illegal practices like this, and it is our role to be critical and demand health care that provides just that.

Our future health

So what happens now? In whose hands are we going to put ourselves when confronted with illness?

Are these making you healthy?
Before answering these questions, let us consider this first: illness may be the absence of health but health is by no means the absence of illness. In fact, the bulk of people who resort to Complementary and Alternative therapies belong to the category of "not ill but not healthy either". Many of us pursue what we consider a fairly sensible life-style but still suffer from lack of sleep, fatigue, recurrent infections, anxiety, digestive problems, just to name a few. The doctors may not provide you with a label for an illness, but this does not make you automatically "healthy", you are merely "not ill enough".

Health is a state of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being that allows us to live our lives fully. The business of pharmaceutical companies has all to do with illness and little to do with the promotion of health, or else they would be selling us organic vegetables and wholesome diets instead of anti-cholesterol/diabetic/you-name-it drugs. As a business, the pharmaceutical industry works in terms of supply and demand. So by pairing up with willing physicians, and publishing false studies proving fictitious health benefits, it is ensuring that the demand is there even if it is not real. The more of their drugs we “need”, the more that can be given to us, and the more money and power pharmaceutical companies get to have. Chronic illnesses are a godsend for this industry as their complexity makes it easier to constantly market new drugs for each possible symptom than to investigate the causes and disease mechanisms involved in them.

Many a cynic conspiracy theorist may even claim that pharmaceutical companies work alongside the food industry in order to make us ill by putting high levels of salt, sugar, fat, and chemical additives into our food so that we will need their drugs on a long-term basis. Whether this is true or not is actually beside the point as ultimately the choice is ours.

So to answer the above questions, what happens now is that we need to assume total responsibility for our health for it is to a great extent down to each of us to be in a state of illness or health. We may be mis-sold unhealthy products branded as healthy but we cannot solely blame the seller for what we ourselves are choosing to buy. We all have the notion that in order to enjoy good physical health we need to eat healthily, not smoke, drink less, and do some moderate exercise; but we still choose to do the opposite. Yes it is outrageous that the pharma business is taking advantage of us by profiting from our pain and I hope that they are thoroughly investigated and made accountable for betraying everybody's trust and for causing suffering to so many people. Yet I also think there is something to be learnt from this. The other side of this coin is that to an extent we have given them the power to betray us by not assuming responsibility for our health.

We need shop around for better health choices
All around me I see people doing the necessary research when trying to upgrade to a better car, computer, iPod, ipad, etc. who would not dream of blaming the shop that sold them the goods when they decide that they are no longer good enough for their needs. If our illness is a need that requires the purchase of something from a company that makes a profit by selling it either directly to us or to our health service, then we need to “shop around” for the best available products. This does not mean that we are going to bypass our doctors or ignore their advice. What it means is that each of us needs to take our own health seriously. We need to get informed about our illnesses, their treatment, and what we can do to improve our chances of getting better. We need to ask all the necessary questions, and challenge whatever seems out of place in the approach that is being offered. Doctors are after all trained to recognise signs of illness and to treat illness when present. Their expertise is centred in illness, not health. So it is down to us to develop an expertise on our well-being. An example of this is a person with moderate Type II diabetes (of which I have known many) who instead of being told by their doctor to control their diet by avoiding refined sugars and refined carbohydrates, is given a prescription and told to eat as many cakes as s/he fancies and if the blood sugar goes haywire, then the medication can be increased. This is clearly a way to perpetuate an illness rather than work towards resolving it.  In this case, the doctor is doing his job and if the patient is not taking responsibility for her wellbeing it is really her problem not the doctor’s.

Now, more than ever, our health is in our own hands. This is about acknowledging that although doctors can save our lives in an emergency or when we suffer from an illness that imminently threatens us, they can only help us manage symptoms when we suffer from chronic, on-going and long-term conditions. If we are unlucky and get a shady doctor, we may not even get this. It is here that we need to get off our backsides and stop expecting the doctor to take away in an instant decades of illness-inducing habits without even bothering to change anything. There is a wealth of information out there available to all, and exploring the many aspects of our well-being is definitely worthwhile. Taking this responsibility is not easy but the benefits are many-fold as I explained in more detail in my previous post about being holistic. There is so much to be gained and really nothing to lose!



1 This article by Terry Macallister published in the Observer last Sunday, analyses the GSK situation 

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