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From the Archives: Have Americans Become Afraid of Their Doctors?

Posted May 19 2013 5:20pm

Noncompliance and the paranoid style.

[Originally published June 27, 2007]

Note: In the everlasting battle between consumers and Big Pharma, amid a string of recent exposes concerning whose doctor took what payment under which table, I am republishing an essay I wrote several years ago, in which I attempt to view the doctor/Pharma/patient interaction from a different angle.


Once upon a time, Americans went to their doctors to get pills. Doctors complained that patients believed competent medical care consisted of being handed a prescription. In the absence of that piece of paper with the unintelligible signature, a patient was apt to claim that the doctor’s visit had been a waste of time. What was the point of seeing a doctor if the doctor didn’t give you anything that would cure what ailed you?

That was then. Patients now demand that doctors and pill makers come clean about the safety of the products they offer (long overdue), and that the pills themselves be absolutely benign in their effects (utterly impossible). In ever-greater numbers, Americans are coming to fear prescription drugs. This condition, in extremis, is a phobia with a recognized set of diagnostic criteria: pharmacophobia—an abnormal fear of medicine.

Today, Americans go to their doctors to be healthy and “drug-free.” If they are taking prescription medications, their goal is to get off them. Yesterday, patients demanded pills for conditions they didn’t have, or for which pills were ineffective. Today, patients are routinely filing lawsuits, demanding to know why their doctor gave them pills. Ironically, one of the major hindrances to health care, from a doctor’s point of view, is “patient non-compliance”—sick people often don’t take their pills properly. (This may be a good place to note that I do not work for, or with, or against Big Pharma, as the drug companies are now called. I don’t work for anybody.)

The drug industry, one of the most tightly regulated industries in America, is the kind of corporate villain Americans understand. What particularly rankles many critics is that the drug companies advertise. They market.

“Presumably,” Joseph Davis concedes in his jeremiad against drug advertising in the journal Hedgehog Review, “some percentage of those who identify their face and their feelings with those signified in the ads actually suffer from a debilitating condition. So much to the good.”

But of little significance, it seems. The central issue for Davis is: What if people who don’t need those pills are exposed to those ads? Normal people might think they need those pills—and they don’t! And very soon, as you can easily see, you’ve got trouble in River City. In the same issue of Hedgehog Review, biomedical ethics professor Leigh Turner professes similar shock, recounting with indignation “a world where a host of marketing strategies are used to package tidy, authoritative, and often profoundly misleading claims” about the safety and effectiveness of products. You can imagine how I felt when I learned that commercial advertisers were capable of doing that.

For lack of a better term, we will have to settle for calling it the real world, where soap, life insurance, housing, cars, psychiatric care, and legal advice are all marketed in misleading ways, to people who don’t always need them. And so it is with pills. However, where once patients desired this, they now resent the offer. Writing in the May 2007 issue of Harper’s, Gary Greenberg declares that “Under the agreement we’ve made—that they are doctors, that I am sick, that I must turn myself over to them so they can cure me—the medicine must be treated with the reverence due a communion wafer.”

Previously, patients wanted their communion wafers, and doctors were often accused of withholding them. Now, as Greenberg makes clear, patients fear doctors will drag them to the altar and force the holy wafers down their throats. One cannot help wondering what manner of pact Greenberg would like to arrive at with his treating physicians. His approach does not seem like a particularly promising step forward in doctor-patient relations.

Interestingly, Americans have shown little interest in a thorough examination of the adverse side effects of non-pharmaceutical approaches to health. Talk therapists and holistic practitioners of every stripe operate in a virtually regulation-free environment. Where, for example, can one find a list of common side effects associated with the practice of various forms of psychotherapy, from post-Freudian talk therapy to, say, the increasingly popular varieties of cognitive therapy? Where, I would like to know, is the list of unwanted side effects that can occur as the result of an on-air encounter with that manipulative bruiser, Dr. Phil?

Science writer Sharon Begley, in a June 18 Time column entitled “Get Shrunk at Your Own Risk,” declares: “What few patients seeking psychotherapy know is that talking can be dangerous, too—and therapists have not exactly rushed to tell them so.”

Among many other examples, Begley reminds us of the “recovered memory” therapies that tore families apart and sent innocent people to prison for the alleged sexual abuse of children. And “stress debriefing,” a method of re-experiencing traumatic events in an effort to eliminate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, sometimes leads to increased stress and higher levels of anxiety, compared to PTSD victims who do not undergo such therapy. I’ll privilege an upset stomach and occasional loose stools from pills over that kind of deep-seated trauma any day.

Begley also cites a 2000 study of professional grief counseling which concluded that four out of ten people grieving for the death of a loved one through formal therapy would have been better off with no therapy at all. Compared to a control group, 40 per cent of mourners in professional therapy experienced increased depression and grief. (In some cases, the most benign contraindication is when the treatment doesn’t do anything at all.)

The side effects associated with talk therapies remain shrouded in mystery. “The number of people undergoing potentially risky therapies reaches into the tens of thousands,” Begley concludes. “Vioxx was yanked from the market for less.”
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