Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA) Contact: http://www.sjmercury.com/ Pubdate: Wed, 15 Apr 1998 Author: Rick Weiss - Washington Post PRESCRIBED DRUGS MAKE 1 IN 15 STICKER Study: Medicines kill 106,000 patients a year More than 2 million Americans become seriously ill every year because of toxic reactions to correctly prescribed medicines taken properly, and 106,000 die from those reactions, a new study concludes. That surprisingly high number makes drug side effects at least the sixth, and perhaps even the fourth, most common cause of death in this country. The analysis, the largest and most complete of its kind, suggests that 1 in 15 hospital patients in the United States can expect to suffer a serious reaction to prescription or over-the-counter medicine, and about 5 percent of them will die from it. If the findings are accurate, the number of people dying each year from drug side effects may be exceeded only by the numbers of people dying from heart disease, cancer and stroke, and may be greater than the number dying from lung disease, pneumonia or diabetes. But pharmaceutical manufacturers, drug regulators and the researchers themselves warned against overreacting to the numbers, noting that the study made no effort to measure the benefits of the same medicines -- an equally important part of the cost-benefit calculation that determines the overall usefulness of a drug. ``We're not saying, `Stop taking drugs,' '' said Bruce Pomeranz, the University of Toronto neurophysiologist who initiated the study. For example, he said, blood thinners may cause fatal bleeding in some but also save countless lives by preventing heart attacks. Experts said the study, which appears in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is stronger than previous ones because it looks only at cases in which drugs were taken correctly. Previous hints of similarly high side-effect rates had been attributed in large part to people getting the wrong medicines or taking them in the wrong doses. Only one-quarter of the reactions were due to patients being allergic to the drug in question. In theory, those reactions could be avoided by more carefully asking people about known allergies. The rest of the side effects were classified as essentially inevitable, bound to affect a certain percentage of the population for unknown reasons. Pomeranz called for research to determine which drugs are most problematic and which patients are most at risk -- information the current analysis did not try to gather. He said hospitals should set up improved systems for tracking adverse reactions as they occur, and for reporting them to federal regulators so medicine labels can be updated and physicians and consumers can be better informed about the risks and benefits of their medicines. Michael Friedman, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency has implemented new systems for preventing, identifying and keeping track of adverse drug reactions. A nationwide electronic network now allows doctors to report adverse reactions easily over computer lines. A growing number of pharmacies are using an FDA-supported system that automatically prints out side-effect warnings and other information for consumers when they pick up their medications.