Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The doctor is not in

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


JoEllen Collins

"Ask your doctor about taking it." "Ask your doctor if Cialis is right for you. Are you ready?" Many times I have sat before my TV set wondering at the proliferation of ads for medications that don't even tell you what they do. I am amazed that a gullible viewer might actually go to his doctor asking if he could get Vioxx or Welbutrin or Allegra D. Prilosec and Zantac, in their efforts to lure viewers suffering from heartburn, show overweight people gorging on fatty foods and then reaching for relief. Zantac says it's meant for people who "hate to wait." How about just not eating such food?

I may be hopelessly old-fashioned, but it seems to me that the only time I have ever taken seriously a suggestion for medicine of any kind was when I first saw a doctor for a particular ailment. In the "good old days" my doctor and I had a rather thorough talk about uses and drawbacks of a particular medicine before I started popping pills. I don't know whether we overdo buying drugs because of the tremendous influence TV advertising has on us or because we, as a society, require instant gratification (do we hate to wait?). Neither is a happy thought.

Now that both Vioxx and Celebrex (and a new drug almost every day) have been considered as agents that may cause other ailments, I am listening even more carefully to the list of side effects that often accompany the TV images of blissful couples, happy oldsters dancing, or vital women riding horses, and I shudder even more. While one's attention is distracted by the beautiful people on screen, an announcer will list in rapid undertones some possible side effects such as impotence, excessive diarrhea, nausea, and sleeplessness. And yet we are still told to talk to our doctors about the drug. One remedy for impotence even warns of the dangers of an erection that may last for more than four hours! How many men may be tempted to rush for that drug?

Seems to me that after we develop an ailment, try better eating and exercise regimens, and then still have pain or discomfort, we should consult a physician about the medicine's pros and cons, and side effects, and make an educated decision. I am certainly not talking about ignoring medication that relieves extreme pain or helps one recover from serious illnesses. I can't imagine what it is like to live with chronic pain, nor do I hope I will ever have to live with it. Certainly there are many times when medicine, even with serious side effects, is essential.

I was fortunate to be raised in the days of family doctors. Our adored Dr. Gilbert, in Burbank, would come to our home when we were ill. When I contracted Hepatitis B in college and literally fell out of bed one morning, crawling to a phone (pre-cell phones), he immediately diagnosed Hepatitis B and came every day to my house to administer blood tests. I didn't have to get up, get dressed and drive to his office, as I would have to do now. I also remember very few medications in our medicine cabinets. Only after my mother's first heart attack did Dr. Gilbert load her up on the latest drugs available.

We have certainly benefited from the research and implementation of remarkable new drug therapies. When my older adopted sister had tuberculosis and died shortly after World War II, the "wonder drugs" were still not available for civilians. If they had been, she may have survived to become the poet she envisioned being. Kudos to the dedicated researchers who have helped people live longer, more productive, lives. I am thrilled we have discovered so many marvelous cures for some cancers and many ailments once thought incurable. Types of drugs like Vioxx and Celebrex surely have helped people with severe and painful arthritis. It is hard to think about what options are available to them now.

In an idealistic fantasy I'd rather see the money we waste on the instant fix spent on, for example, getting medications to the many innocent African women victims and children orphaned from AIDS. Maybe instead of paying exorbitant prices for unnecessary drugs, we should lift our hands to write checks to legitimate agencies working on research to rescue these victims. I for one, am going to continue to resist the temptation to "ask my doctor" about the latest fad drug.

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