Working Together to Reduce Meds

Article excerpt

Byline: Maura Lerner Minneapolis Star Tribune

Dr. Marcus Thygeson once wrote his patients countless prescriptions for heartburn drugs -- Prevacid, Prilosec and Nexium -- the "little purple pills" of TV ads.

But several months ago, when his own doctor advised him to start taking the pills, he refused. "It was all I could do to get out of the office without a prescription," he said.

Thygeson, a gastroenterologist, has come to see the popular pills as a symbol of the excesses of modern medicine -- a powerful medication "handed out like water" in his words, amid mounting evidence that it may do more harm than good.

"It's a drug we've become very cavalier about," says Thygeson. "Now it's like front-line therapy if you so much as belch."

The heartburn drugs, known as proton-pump inhibitors, are designed to reduce the body's ability to pump acid into the stomach. Today, they are among the nation's best-selling medications, with more than 119 million prescriptions written last year, in addition to over-the-counter sales. Experts have called them a godsend for ailments like acid reflux, a major cause of heartburn.

Yet there's a growing consensus that millions of people are taking the pills needlessly, or far longer than necessary, wasting billions of dollars and in some cases triggering significant side effects.

Some skeptics ask why so many Americans are taking pills, which can cost up to $200 a month, to control digestive problems that can be tied to their own bad habits, particularly at the dinner table.

"I'm not blaming patients -- it's the path of least resistance," said Dr. Greg Plotnikoff, an internist at Abbott Northwestern's Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis. Fixing the underlying problem, he said, may require losing weight, avoiding certain foods or other lifestyle changes. A pill can seem like an easy alternative.

In the past few years, scientists have raised concerns about long-term side effects, such as bone fractures and pneumonia. One study in 2009 even found that the drugs, when stopped abruptly, can cause the very symptoms they were designed to prevent.

The drug manufacturers and some leading experts have disputed those findings. But insurers and doctors alike are starting to have second thoughts.

"When you put a patient on a PPI, you're essentially setting them up to be on it for a lifetime," said Thygeson. "I think we need to back away from those drugs."

Bernice Koniar had every reason to feel grateful when her doctor started her on heartburn medication. She had just learned she had gastroesophageal reflux disease, a cause of chronic acid indigestion and all-around misery. …