Terence Blacker: I'm not taking a daily pill if I'm not sick

Doctors do wonderful work. But it's time they stopped prescribing to society

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The Independent Online

The doctors have found something new to nag us about. Having thundered against smokers (inside, outside, active, passive), sermonised weightily around the perils of drink, and warned us that, unless we stop getting fat, these islands will soon sink under our weight, they have now turned their attention to the over-50s.

A study published in the latest edition of The Lancet suggests that everyone in that age category should now be taking some drugs called statins every day. By reducing cholesterol in the blood, the argument goes, the pills cut by 15 per cent the chance of someone in the low-risk category suffering a fatal heart attack or stroke. Fewer people would die, and the cost to the NHS of screening and healthcare would be reduced. Here is the new double-whammy of generalised medical advice: not only is this good for you, it is great for the country and the economy.

The role of doctors in our world has changed over the past five years. Not so long ago, their work was with individual patients; now they are on hand every day to provide the latest bossy prescription as to how we should all live our lives, like secular priests scolding us from the pulpit of science.

It is not difficult to see how this happened. We live in an anxious, self-analysing culture. Government, fretting about the rising healthcare cost of an ageing population, has become increasingly interested in the idea of prevention reducing the need for cure. Together, individuals and politicians have turned to the medical profession for advice. Doctors, few of whom are over-burdened with problems of self-esteem at the best of times, have allowed the attention to turn their heads.

It should go without saying that the idea of millions of healthy people taking a daily pill is distinctly creepy. Common sense, even if it is not to be found in the pages of The Lancet, suggests that messing around with the metabolism of a healthy human is unnecessarily risky.

The new report claims, unconvincingly, that taking a cholesterol-reducing pill would offer "a benefit that greatly exceeds any known hazards of statin therapy". That little qualifier "known" gives one pause, as does the list of potential side-effects: muscle wastage, liver damage, stomach upsets, sleeplessness, memory loss, "bleeding strokes", and diabetes. The human spirit would also be infected. When a large part of the population is told that it needs to be medicated by the state in order to stay alive and do its bit for the economy, it is not just cholesterol that is being reduced.

Doctors do wonderful work in their surgeries, but it is time for them to stop self-importantly prescribing to society as a whole, particularly when their advice involves shovelling an unnecessary drug into the bodies of the healthy. They are giving us a headache.

terblacker@aol.com

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