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Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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What if all our Medications were Free?

Research suggests that half of us would still ignore doctors’ orders

We are all feeling the pinch of higher health care costs. If we have insurance, our co-payments to doctors and pharmacies are probably higher than ever, and there’s a good chance that we’re also seeing higher deductibles. For those with no insurance, the situation may be even worse. Despite all the bad news, many popular medications have gone generic, allowing costs to fall. Some excellent and highly effective drugs for many common medical conditions are now readily available for $4.00 per month.

Although diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle are the very best ways to prevent heart disease, medical treatment is often necessary to control high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. We’re not just talking about making the numbers look better. An Italian study of patients with high blood pressure published in the medical journal Circulation in 2009 found a nearly 40 percent reduction in the risk of heart attacks and other serious cardiovascular problems in people who consistently took their medications, compared to those who did not.

After a heart attack, medical therapy is critical. Someone who decides to stop taking their heart medications (including aspirin) is three times more likely to die in the first year than someone who follows their doctor’s orders.

Amongst those who fail to take their meds as prescribed, many cite the high cost of drugs. This argument is a bit hard to swallow when we are talking about $4 drugs, but in truth, some of the pills that are the most important are also the most expensive.

To try to get to the heart of the matter, researchers from Harvard University randomly assigned 2845 patients who were hospitalized for heart attacks to receive all of their heart medications for free. Another group of 3010 similar patients were simply given the usual prescription coverage offered by their insurance plan.

At the end of the study, less than half of those with insurance coverage took their medications as prescribed. Those who got their meds for free did only a little better. However, even this slight improvement translated into a small but significant reduction in the likelihood of subsequent heart problems.

Exactly why so many of those enrolled in this study failed to follow through with medical therapy is not clear, but cost was obviously only a minor factor. No doubt some experienced side effects and others may have not understood how important their prescription drugs were to their health and recovery.

If you have a medical condition and are not comfortable with taking your prescription drugs, it’s crucial that you discuss it with your doctor. In the case of side effects, there are usually other options. If you don’t feel that you’ve been well enough informed about why or how to take the meds, then you need to let your doctor know. Our job is to help to keep you healthy, but we can’t do it without you.

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Tags: You and Your Doctor

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.