Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

Strategies and alternatives for coping with fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder and other chronic illnesses

Big Pharma and Chronic Illness

Posted by wendyburnett on January 8, 2010

Do the big pharmaceutical companies want us to get well?


I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time, and I wonder, do the drug companies really want me to get well? If they found a cure for fibromyalgia, diabetes, bipolar disorder or any of the other myriad of chronic diseases out there, what would happen to their bottom line?

The big drug companies make billions of dollars a year because people with chronic illnesses come back every month to buy more of the medications that treat their symptoms. Someone with diabetes buys a new supply of insulin, or a new bottle of pills, every month. If they developed a cure for diabetes, they’d sell it once, and the company would no longer have that guaranteed monthly income.

If you’re bipolar and in treatment, what has your psychiatrist told you? I’m betting it was something to the effect that there’s no cure, and you’ll have to take medication for the rest of your life to control it. Then they handed you a sheaf of prescriptions for a mood stabilizer to manage mania, an antidepressant to keep you from becoming suicidal, and maybe an anti-psychotic. The next step is usually the “side-effect merry-go-round.” The “consumer” (that’s you) reports that they’re having side effects from one or more of the medications, and is given prescriptions to counter the side effects from the original medications. The problem with this is that each of the new medications comes with its own set of side effects, which may require yet another new prescription. Do you see where I’m going here? Eventually you’re taking so many pills every day that you rattle when you walk, and SOMEONE (either you, your insurance company, or a combination of the two,) is paying the drug companies hundreds or thousands of dollars a month to provide you with pills to solve problems that their pills caused in the first place.

This is a wonderful model for big pharma – we start off taking one or two medications to manage an illness, then have to add more and more medications to manage the side effects of the medications we already take. Then, after we’ve been taking all this stuff for a while, we start getting into dosage adjustments, because either our bodies have adjusted to the medication and we have to take more to get the same effect, or we’re not taking enough to control the side effects. (Sometimes a dosage is reduced, but in my experience, that’s pretty rare.)

The companies that manufacture all these medications have got to be thrilled. We’re taking more and more of their pills, and giving them more and more of our money. But wait, it gets better. We’ve been faithfully taking our pills, and the patent expires. Suddenly, there are twenty other companies producing generic versions of the same medication for a fraction of what we’ve been paying. This is good for us, right? We can spend less on the same medication and save some money.

Maybe, maybe not. The drug company hasn’t been standing still, they’ve been working on a NEW medication that treats the same symptoms, but it does it better, or with fewer side effects (and, incidentally; has a bright, shiny new patent preventing any other company from making it.) The company pulls out the big advertising budget and tells us all how wonderful this new medicine is, and how much better off we’ll be if we take it instead of the old one. Human nature being what it is, many of us see the commercials, or read the ads; and switch to the new pill. This makes the people at the drug company very happy because they’re the only ones allowed to make it. They get to charge anything they want, and if we want that pill we have to pay it.

No matter what the illness is, the cycle is the same. Nice for big pharma, not so nice for us. So, back to my original question, “Does Big Pharma want us to get well?” I doubt it. If there were cures for all the chronic illnesses out there, the pharmaceutical industry would go broke. It’s in their best interest to treat the symptoms, not the disease, so don’t expect them to spend money looking for cures.

This post is not intended as medical advice. I am not a doctor, and I do NOT advocate discontinuing prescribed medications without consulting the prescribing physician. Discontinuing a medication without seeking professional advice can have serious consequences, up to and including death.

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