Our Alarming Culture of Pill People and Future Trends in Healthcare

Our Alarming Culture of Pill People and Future Trends in Healthcare

How many pills do you take on a daily basis?

According to a 2010 study by Colorado State University, about 68% of American adults take multivitamin supplements. At the same time the average American fills 12 prescriptions a year.

After spending the past few days with my aging parents in an assisted living center in Arizona, daily meds and supplements have become a critical issue for them to deal with.

Yes, every person is different and their daily "pill cocktail" will vary, but the notion that virtually every problem has a “pill solution” is still very much alive and well in today’s culture.

On one end of the spectrum is my colleague and fellow futurist, Ray Kurzweil who takes upwards of 250 vitamins a day, and on the other end are those who don’t take any.

To be sure, future generations will refer to us as the “pill people” because of our addiction to the quick fix. But as with all cultural memes, they have a beginning, middle, and end. Sometime in the near future, pill taking will peak and other types of cures, therapies, and self-healing techniques will begin to replace our need for pills.

The average American today takes slightly over 10 pills a day. By 2050, that number may very well be zero. If that’s the case, what will be the next big thing destined to capture the money we spend today on pills? Here are a few thoughts.

Popping a pill may seem like an easy fix, but when is it too many?

Understanding Today’s Pill Culture

Projections show that Americans today spend over $270 billion on prescription drugs vs. slightly over $34 billion for non-prescription alternatives and vitamins.

Although senior citizens comprise 13% of the total population in the United States, they account for over 30% of the prescriptions, and over 40% of all the money spent on drug. According to a study by the Institute for Families USA, the average number of prescriptions per year/per senior citizen grew from 19.6 in 1992 to 28.5 in 2000. Projections show the average number of prescriptions per elderly person will grow to 41.5 in 2013.

Naturally, having too many prescriptions causes a myriad of problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14,800 Americans died from overdosing on opioids in 2008, the most recent year data is available—more than the number of deaths from heroin or cocaine.

Another recent headline cast an even darker shadow, “Prescription Drugs Kill 300 Percent More Americans Than Illegal Drugs.”

While there are still many issues with those who need medications and don’t have access to them, there are far more red flags being raised over excessive pill taking.

Multiple prescriptions tend to increase the risk of unwanted side effects and potentially dangerous drug interactions, especially among the elderly. There’s also a growing problem with “prescribing cascades,” where one prescription causes side effects and the doctor prescribes another medication to combat the side effects, which results in yet even more side effects, forcing another medication and on and on.

Adhering to a doctor’s regimen can become an issue as well. As with my mother, it gets complicated when someone takes a dozen prescriptions daily – some once a day, others twice a day, some with food, some without, some that can be taken together, others that can’t. It can be challenging to remember a routine like this one time, let alone stick to it day after day.

Even though we are living in a pill-oriented society, people don’t like taking them. On one hand, pills offer hope for a healthier or pain relieved body, yet recent studies indicate significant anxiety over side effects and drug interactions, plus many simply don’t really believe the drug was ever necessary.

Setting the Stage for What Comes Next

A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that 69% of adults in the U.S. now track a series of health indicators both for themselves and/or a loved one.

  • 60% of U.S. adults say they track their weight, diet, or exercise routine.
  • 33% of U.S. adults track blood pressure, blood sugar, headaches, sleep patterns, or other health indicators.
  • 12% of U.S. adults track health indicators or symptoms for a loved one.

That said, much of the tracking is done informally and simply committed to memory:

  • 49% of trackers say they keep track of progress “in their heads.”
  • 34% say they track the data on paper, like in a notebook or journal.
  • 21% say they use some form of technology to track their health data, such as a spreadsheet, website, app, or device.

With this being the first national survey measuring health data tracking, which has been shown in clinical studies to be a tool for improving outcomes, particularly among people trying to lose weight or manage a chronic condition, the Pew survey went on to conclude:

  • 46% of health trackers say that this activity has changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone for whom they provide care.
  • 40% of trackers say it has led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor.
  • 34% of trackers say it has affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition

Pills will soon be able to convey their effectiveness digitally.

Enter - The Internet of Things, Increased Awareness, and Super Precision

The Internet of Things will grow to an estimated 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020, and many of these devices will be sensors that track our body functions.

Smart dust sensors, smaller than the tip of a pencil will soon be embedded in our clothes and shoes, giving us constant tracking information, and signal us whenever we reach a danger zone.

Along with having our bodies “radiating” health data, a number of tracking services will become available to make it simple for average people to live healthier lifestyles without waiting for that occasional emergency forcing a doctor visit to get back on track.

Here are a few likely outcomes we will see in the future:

  • Health fitness gadgets will explode over the coming years.
  • Pills will soon grow out of favor, switching from a positive to a negative in the minds of average people. In many circles, pills will deteriorate to the category of “bad” and “evil.”
  • Increased sensors will enable us to gain an augmented reality view of what’s happening inside us.
  • The “digitally aware” will be shown to have substantially better overall health than those who are not doing the self-tracking.
  • Growing levels of personal health data will lead to many “pill alternatives.”
  • Digestible cameras will become commonplace as people wish to gain perspective on their “inner health” as they watch the cameras pass through their digestive tracts.
  • Companies will begin marketing themselves as having a “no-pill solution.”
  • Pill taking will begin to decline.

How much money do you spend on perscription drugs?

Final Thoughts

We are currently spending a bloody fortune on pills.

While Big Pharma would love nothing better than for this to continue, a number of disrupting forces are now in play, and over the coming years, revenue streams will begin to redirect, creating huge opportunities for what comes next.

New government healthcare policies will force downward pressure on pricing and spending, while at the same time drive a number of known efficiencies currently sitting on the sidelines.

Since healthcare is such a confusing topic, with constant competing claims and contrarian viewpoints, changes will take far longer than most are predicting. As always, the early adopters will lead the way, but not all early adopters will be following the same trajectory.

With a rapidly aging population, opportunities will be huge for the next decade and beyond in this massive business battlefield.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

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13 Responses

  1. Tom,
    You didn’t mention the medicare providers.
    Over the new years, a medication costing $40 per month last year goes up to $120 per month. I have a good consultant, and she worked the system, but could not restore sanity.
    I am addicted; can’t get off, so must pay.
    Gary

  2. Michael Cushman

    Or perhaps we will have a JIT, pill-on-demand system. If we have sensors within our bodies communicating with a personal device and we have pill printers, then our pills/vitamins can be unique and customized exactly to match what our body says it needs now, and the dosages will be printed out in one pill. The system would also know our routines, our typical mental and physical demands throughout our day: when do we do our most creative work, or need the most concentration, or do our daily exercise, and of course, when do we like to head to bed. Perhaps in the future we consume a single,customized, smart pill, Just when we need it.

  3. Having recently gone through this with my father I completely agree it is deplorable… We,for years, would have to bring a sheet with us when he would end up in the ER, just to try to explain just how many pills he was on what they all did and the delicate balance between inneractions. Thank God he was an ex detective with a platinum perscription plan–or maybe not!
    “Make Food thy Medicine”- Hypocrates

  4. admin

    Michael,

    I love the pill printer idea but worry about it being blocked by Big Pharma. However, on-demand medication where we receive precisely what we need, in the exact right dosage, at the time we need it is really the ultimate solution. We need to remove the human variable from the equation both on the doctor side and on the patient side.

    Tom

  5. admin

    Nancy,

    Some great comments. Apparently there are only 2 countries – U.S. and New Zealand – where its legal to market pharmaceuticals directly to the consumer. This changes everything.

    A friend from Australia wrote “the pill-popping addiction seems primarily an American cultural phenomenon.” He went on to explain, “I for one don’t take a single pill and neither does my wife. We didn’t make a conscious decision here – it just never came up as something we might need….other than something like an antibiotic for a specific short-term ailment.”

    Tom

  6. admin

    Gary,

    Thanks for the reminder. The price shifting today is only the tip of the iceberg.

    Tom

  7. Ray Comeau

    Agree 100% with topic. We allocate high priest status to doctors and we abdicate our own responsibility to look after our own health. In future people will demand they own their medical records, not the doctor, not the hospital and through technology and education will gain medical freedom. By owning and maintaining their own they will be able to communicate to any medical expert worldwide for wide range of treatment options.

  8. Good thoughts and I believe the real-time technological monitoring of our bodies is likely to become a reality. But this is still a deeper level of pathology than our pill culture; a further step away from knowing and achieving real health. The fact is, we are all able to easily monitor our own health by simply sensing it or, better, “feeling” it. Homo sapiens appears to be the only species on the planet that seems confused about how to sense and seek health. The origin of the pill culture and the techno-health culture lies in a disease-oriented culture, while these distractions are largely circumvented with a health-oriented culture. I’m not an anti-tech luddite, but a pro-health physician. There is a much better way.

  9. Kathy

    Uhhhhh…I’m not trying to be impolite, but has anyone here ever had a serious disease? It’s all very well to say “pills are evil” but many of us need those pills to, well, be upright and productive or even able to walk. Tracking is all well and good, but tracking will not fix massive problems.(Severe ulcerative colitis=my body is trying to kill itself=massive bleeding internally. Medications save lives.)

  10. Phil Smith

    Interesting article. I think the process that will drive our moving away from the pill culture is one of shaking off the paternalistic nature of the doctor patient relationship. The democratization of healthcare caused by the internet has given rise to a certain level of self-actualization as patients learn that they can take control of their health care. Through this process people are realizing the impact of what we put in our bodies and how those elements can enhance or degrade how we feel. We are in essence realizing that there is a causal relationship between our lifestyles and how we feel, and that if we want to feel better we need to change our behavior. This as opposed to popping a pill as a quick fix. How we track how we feel using technology is secondary to the basic idea that we have much more control over our well being than we have been led to believe by the medical establishment.

  11. admin

    Kathy,

    To your point, here’s a fascinating chart that compares the pre-vaccine era to today.
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151499812840681&set=a.438789485680.220582.500405680&type=1&theater

    Yes, we still need access to good pharmaceuticals. But how many are too many? And why do they all have such insanely complicated names that make them so difficult to keep straight in your head?

    Tom

  12. Does anyone think that our healthy lifespan and quality of life is really better than say that of our grandparents.

    Yes we can prolong life of a cancer patients sometimes but why do we have so much more cancer, CV disease, diabetes, dementia ect???

    BTW for more info & solutions, see our wellness blog :-)

  13. Symptoms, illness and disease are the body’s way of saying that what you’re doing or not doing isn’t working. Ever notice that when you go to the doctors all they do is listen for about 6 mins, if that, and prescribe one or more medications but never recommend how to take better care of yourself? The healthcare system isn’t taking care of your health. It’s now the “keep ’em sick” system. Don’t rely on someone else to know you better than yourself. Look at all of the food and lifestyle components that are crucial to being healthy, happy and well. Find what’s missing or what isn’t working? Then change it. If you can’t figure it out for yourself, hire a health coach like me!

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