Dr. Dan O'Rourke
Department of Communication Studies
Americans are fortunate to have access to some the finest medical professionals and facilities in the world. Combined with government oversight agencies and independent researchers to test medical products for safety, we are afforded a great deal of confidence when we go to the medical cabinets in our homes. A recent story by Pro Publica, a non-profit investigative journalism agency, in cooperation with the National Public Radio program, This American Life, however, warns us that we must be ever vigilant as consumers of over the counter medicines.
Three years ago in 2010, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that more than 300 people (321) died from acetaminophen toxicity. Acetaminophen is the active drug found in Tylenol, which is one of the reasons this finding was so startling. In 1982, someone tampered with and poisoned bottles of Tylenol in the Chicago area. (content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1878063.html) The makers of the product acted decisively and withdrew millions of bottles of the medicine from the shelves at great cost to the product company. Since that time, Tylenol has benefited from the public perception that it is one of the safest products on the market. Advertising campaigns for the medicine echoed this perception and declared that Tylenol was the pain reliever that “hospitals used most.” It was “recommended by pediatricians” and provided “safe, fast, pain relief.” Ironically, this belief may have contributed to the problem.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been aware of the potential problem of acetaminophen toxicity for some time. In 1977, an expert panel strongly recommended that a warning be placed on the painkiller that excess use could cause “severe liver damage.” Great Britain, Switzerland, and New Zealand have required that it be sold only by pharmacies or regulated the amount that can be purchased. In America, however, public perception of safety has negated these findings. The FDA asserts that this has created a “special risk” for the product as twenty-five percent of Americans routinely take more pills than prescribed. The FDA sets the maximum recommended daily dose at 4 grams, or eight pills; as few as two extra pills has been reported to cause liver failure. From 2001 to 2010, acetaminophen-related deaths amounted to twice the number of all other over-the counter-pain relievers. This is information that must be communicated to the general public. A careful examination of the potentially fatal consequences of what may be considered simple miscommunication between drug manufacturers, health practioners, and innocent patients is at the heart of this issue. Once again, we see a need for greater consumer awareness and the development of health and risk communication in the medical profession.
With thanks to Dr. Pravin Rodrigues for his ideas and input