Blog | Thursday, December 20, 2018

The risks of drug side effects create a case for caution and humility

I prescribe heartburn medicines every day. There's a gaggle of them now, Prilosec, Nexium, Prevacid, Protonix, to name a few. As far as experts know, their primary effect is to reduce the production of stomach acid. This is why they are so effective at putting out your heartburn fire. In simple terms: no acid, no heartburn.

I am quite sure that well-meaning physicians like myself do not understand or will ever know all of the unintended effects of tampering with a digestive process that took a few million years or so to evolve. Are we so arrogant that we believe that these drugs only target gastric acid production?

They are absorbed into the blood stream and course through every organ of the body. Is it not conceivable that certain tissues might be sensitive to these foreign invaders? Might there be unintended consequences that occur far downstream well beyond our horizon similar to a butterfly effect. Do we really think that gastric acid is present just to bother us and it serves no useful function?

The human body is a supremely elegant, complex and integrated structure. Tampering with one part of it may have wildly indirect consequences so far removed that we will not recognize the connection. Consider these examples:
• A certain class of antibiotics can cause rupture of the Achille's tendon.
• An anti-malarial medicine can cause nightmares.
• Rotovirus vaccine can cause intestinal blockage.

There is science underlying the three examples above, but consider how implausible the causal connections between the drugs and the side effects are? Imagine what we don't know.

This is why seasoned medical professionals prescribe new medicines sparingly. A new vanguard of medicines has entered the arena. Biologic medicines have stormed into the medical universe promising to stem the progression of many stubborn diseases such as Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and ulcerative colitis. We have all seen commercials for these agents on television, where the actors posing as patients are always fit and often engaged in some athletic activity. These medicines, which tamper with the immune system by design, must be taken FOREVER. The list of potential known side effects covers several pages in small print and range from life-threatening infections to cancer. And, to repeat a line from this very post, imagine what we don't know.

The human body is a masterpiece of design and function. When we pull on a thread, we may be distorting the far corners of the tapestry and never even realize that we were the culprit.

My advice to my colleagues and to my patients? Be skeptical and humble always.

This post by Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, appeared at MD Whistleblower. Dr. Kirsch is a full time practicing physician and writer who addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.