Last fall, I came down with an unidentifiable illness that strongly resembled mono. When the pain in my throat became so intense that even water was too difficult to drink, I ended up in the emergency room with an IV in my arm and a slew of doctors peering into my throat. While asking the usual questions, one doctor gestured to a sign on the wall, illustrating the levels of pain intensity from a smiley face (level one) to a really, really distressed face (level 10). “How bad is your pain?” he asked casually.
“I guess I’m about a three or four … ?” I responded, wondering if this subjective question was pertinent to my diagnosis. “I can give you some morphine,” he said as he headed towards the cabinet.
I thought back to the first time I read Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” and pictured myself lying on a Southern dirt road with a fatal wound, begging for morphine.
I declined his offer. When I was discharged without being diagnosed with mono or strep throat, he prescribed me an antibiotic and two painkillers.
Inarguably, our society is dependent on medications. Nervous parents bring their sick children to the doctor with every sore throat, fearful that it may be a fatal case of strep. Doctors respond by prescribing antibiotics for every sore throat, fearful that it may be a lawsuit in the making. According to The New York Times, 70 percent of sore throat-stricken children who see doctors are given antibiotics, while only about 30 percent of them actually have strep throat.
While giving sick kids antibiotics even as a precautionary measure may seem like a good idea, many don’t realize the ramifications of overuse. No, I’m not alluding to drug addiction but rather to something you wouldn’t find in a made-for-TV movie: drug-resistant disease.
Initially, drug-resistant strains developed out of complacency. Antibiotics were such an amazing development in the early 20th century that pharmaceutical companies started focusing on innovations against viral infection, failing to anticipate that bacteria are living, evolving organisms. However, even the increased awareness among drug companies about this issue has not resolved it. We already have drug-resistant bacteria, and our “just-in-case” attitude towards antibiotics is only aggravating the problem.
Consider the 40 percent of kids who don’t have strep throat but take antibiotics anyway. The drugs will still kill bacteria in the absence of strep, even helpful bacteria. And since we’re talking about evolution, think survival of the fittest: only the strongest bacteria will survive, and those aren’t always the good kind.
Since we Americans like to blame someone, let’s be fair and split the fault. For one, there are the patients, who view themselves as consumers seeking a product: medical care. Antibiotics seem like the concrete remedy to illness, especially when the alternative is something as intangible as rest. Of course, the doctors are also to blame, submitting to the patients’ persuasions and addressing only physical problems.
Osteopathic medicine is a philosophy that takes a more holistic approach by treating the person rather than just the illness. As New Age as that sounds, it’s an accredited system that requires a medical degree and utilizes conventional treatment methods like medications and surgery. Its philosophy includes one focus desperately lacking in our pharmaceutically manipulated society: This form of medicine “has an appreciation of the body’s ability to heal itself.” However, in America, there are about 26 schools of osteopathic medicine – compared to the more than 125 schools of allopathic medicine.
But because doctors are often too preoccupied with the satisfaction of the consumer – I mean, patient – to focus on a holistic approach, we should alleviate the problem as patients first. We don’t have to take every medication we’re prescribed. When you think you have a cold and the doctor hands you penicillin, or when you don’t actually need that shot of morphine for your sore throat, you don’t have to take it.
Maybe a little healthy skepticism would make our society a little healthier.
Emmarie Huetteman is the summer associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.