A variety of pills and vitamin tablets on a table

Attitudes to drugs

We can’t seem to make up our mind about drugs

In 1979, author M N G Dukes described “the love–hate relationship which exists between the public and its drugs – substances which are hailed one moment as the solution to every problem and castigated the next as the cause of every ill”.

We’re consuming more medicines than ever before. We take for granted that they will cure our headaches, see off infections and lower our blood pressure. We give enthusiastically to medical research charities and see health-related research as a positive thing.

But we are terrible at taking medicines as instructed: around half of the people being treated for chronic diseases do not stick to their prescriptions. We worry that we are overmedicating, giving young children a ‘chemical cosh’ (as Ritalin has been described) at the first sign of hyperactivity. Our final years are spent consuming a colourful cocktail of daily medications.

We have concerns about what drugs might do to us, and we don’t take them unless we absolutely have to. And yet we are happy to turn to ‘natural remedies’ that have been studied far less intensively, rarely have any track record of success and may contain a whole host of bioactive chemicals. Paradoxically, the word ‘clinical’ has come to mean something cold, logical and uncaring. How has it come to this?

The shift in attitude could be inflamed by a growing unease about conventional medicine. Pharmaceuticals-based medicine focuses on treating disease, not patients, in a highly mechanistic way. A quick consultation and here’s a prescription. Next.

By contrast, complementary therapies can seem caring and focused on the patient, not just the disease. Remedies may seem more ‘natural’ and kinder and be seen as a relatively safe way to improve one’s health (whatever the reality).

Lead image:

Kate Whitley/Wellcome Collection CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Drug Development’ in January 2008 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Drug Development
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development