Do we risk over-medicating a healthy population?

10 years ago, screening for as many diseases as possible was the method used to keep the population healthy before they became ill.  Now, have we moved towards over-prescribing medication and trying to treat diseases before they have caused any problems.  Is this sensible for our long term health, or is it causing more problems than it solves?

Mass screening was common to catch diseases (especially cancers) before they progressed to more serious stages.  However, now only a few screening tests are used due to the problems associated with it.  This included harming patients as a population, by exposing them to hospital bugs and using damaging screening techniques such as x-rays.  It also included some false positives, leading to unnecessary treatment and trauma to the patient, and occasionally false negatives, preventing patients reporting symptoms of the disease – because they’ve been told they are ‘all clear’.

Currently medical check-ups involve a myriad of tests, for all sorts of things we don’t need to have checked, and often this leads to an abnormal test result.  This easily ends up with a doctor prescribing a drug or supplement which isn’t always needed (as the condition may resolve itself and often hasn’t been causing symptoms).  Not only does this involved vast costs to the NHS with expensive drug prescriptions, but it also means people will continue to take these ‘preventative drugs’ such as statins to reduce cholesterol, or aspirin to lower the risk of blood clots, without knowing about the long term effects of taking these drugs.  We simply don’t understand what will be the effects of taking these drugs long term and what taking a cocktail of preventative drugs (as more abnormal tests are done) will  do to our health.  The way drugs interact with each other is poorly understood and the risks and harm associated with this may outweigh the benefits.

Overall, should we learn from the mistakes we made in preventative medicine with screening and take a more careful and considered approach to prescribing these preventative drugs?  Do we risk over-medicating a healthy population?

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