The Rising Healthcare Costs of Pharmaceuticals

Prescription drug use and abuse in the United States, continues to rise at an alarming rate as consumers continue to rely on pharmaceuticals for managing disease symptoms. A recent Mayo Clinic study reports that nearly 70% of all Americans have used at least one prescription drug and more than half receive at least two prescriptions, a percentage that has grown over the last decade. A startling 13% of Americans are on painkilling opiods. Increased prescription writing for pharmaceuticals unfortunately results in more side effects, polypharmacy, fatal overdoses and frequent abuse. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The overall impact on healthcare expenditures on prescription drugs reached $259 billion in 2010, and accounted for 12 percent of the total personal health care expenditures and is expected to double over the next decade.

This dramatic increase in prescription drug use can be attributed to a number of factors. For example,  as the average lifespan of people increases so to does the incidence of chronic disease, many of which are conditions requiring more treatments and drugs for longer periods of time; patients expect that they will always receive a prescription when they go to a physician’s office which encourages doctors to overprescribe; hospitals and emergency rooms with little time for alternative treatments, want to help patients by giving them prescriptions to treat them expediently for pain, sleep and other issues; and since women on average visit a doctor more frequently than men do, women are often prescribed a narcotic or anti-anxiety drug more often than most men.

generic pills and bottleIncreased prescribing of drugs unfortunately results in more side effects and even fatal overdoses. According to the CDC, from 1999 to 2010, the number of fatal overdoses has increased fivefold among women and tripled among men. When abuse of prescriptions is considered, the problem can be described as epidemic.  Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) show that nearly one-third of people aged 12 and over whom used drugs for the first time in 2009 began by using a prescription drug non-medically.

These escalations continue to put stress on America’s health care system.  Many studies point to the economic impact associated with the increased use of pharmaceuticals. In a recent study released by the Worker’s Compensation Research Institute, the average cost of treating an injured worker without an opiate is $13,000, compared to an average cost of $117,000 for a patient prescribed a long-acting opiate like OxyContin.  According to the Express Scripts 2012 Workers’ Compensation Drug Trend Report for each dollar spent on abused drugs, an additional $41 is used for associated medical treatment.

It’s no secret that more Americans want medical alternatives without the harmful side effects associated with certain pharmaceuticals.  Consumer demands have shifted away from traditional pharmaceuticals to natural alternatives such as plant based pharmaceuticals and more recently medical foods.  In fact, seventy-one percent of sleep-deprived Americans would rather use other means than pharmaceutical drugs to help them sleep, according to a 2013 Harris interactive Rx Sleep Survey.

In one pharmacoeconomic analysis published in the Journal of Pharmacy Research, it was determined that the actual cost of using the non-opiate pain medication, Theramine®, a prescription medical food with minimal side effects is considerably lower when compared to the total impact of NSAIDs.  Medical foods, once a novelty, are becoming mainstream for a variety of diseases. Since drugs and medical foods work along different pathways in the body, medical foods are often recommended as a complementary or adjunct medication to a reduced dosage of a drug, thereby minimizing the potential of harmful side effects associated with traditional, high dose medications. Medical foods offer an important alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals ultimately improving patient outcomes and reducing healthcare care costs.