Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Infographic #2 - the side effects of the top five prescribed medications in England 2011

So leading on from my previous infographic about the scale and cost of England's prescriptions in 2011, my next infographic looks at the side effects of these drugs. This infographic has been, to put it mildly, a labour of love. It has taken me well over a month of an hour here and an hour there of conceiving it, drafting it, scrapping it, starting again, tweaking, redesigning..... you get the idea. The complexity came from the fact that I wanted to show the connection between the conditions that are treated/prevented by these drugs, but also the side effects, as there were many conditions that popped up on both lists. Showing a many-to-many relationship is not easy; at first I thought of a venn diagram type thing using body organs instead of circles (yes I like to over-complicate things), then I was thinking of a flow chart, but there were way too many lines, so then I settled on this circle which is the format you see now. I may well do another post showing the stages of this infographic at another time, as it has been a useful learning curve to me that others may find interesting and/or helpful.

Anyway, back to the subject matter at hand. There were a few things in particular that really concerned me about these data. First, as I've sort of mentioned before is that these drugs are primarily prescribed to tackle our most prevalent Western diseases: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, hypothyroidism, conditions all largely caused by unhealthy lifestyles. To my amateur eye, it seems that many of these drugs are not only papering over the cracks of these conditions, but also they perversely allow patients to continue with their harmful lifestyles (see this article for a very worrying quote from a Omeprazole patient about how she could indulge her love of pastries after suffering with heartburn for many years!!). Second, I was particularly concerned at the sheer number of varied and sometimes gruesome side effects of these prescriptions. Admittedly, some are rare, but on reading some of the descriptions, I am not sure I would want to take such a risk (just Google rhabdomolysis or Stevens-Johnson Syndrome - warning it may turn your stomach!).

To me, it seems the only winners in all this are the food and pharmaceutical industries. As long as we keep spending vast amounts of money on alcohol, sugar, and processed foods (and lots of it), there were always be a pharmaceutical company ready with a magic pill to reduce the effects of consumption of these foods. Its a virtuous circle for them, and a vicious one for us.


  1. Lots more red dots than green...

    I agree that we've seen medication as a way to mitigate our lifestyles, rather than taking illness as a sign to change the way we live. We have such an abundance of choice in the developed world, but making the healthy choice is often hard. It requires willpower, an ability to be comfortable going totally against the grain of social norms (you don't want a pizza and beer? what's wrong with you?), and a great deal of self education which will often contradict perceived "facts".

    Medication saves lives, and I would never argue against using it when needed. But surely we shouldn't be reaching our 60s on a bucketload of pills a day?

  2. I think you're right on the money here, I'm not as good as you & Claire at expressing myself in writing, but for me it's about moderation. It's ok to have a pizza & a beer for most of us occasionally but not every day. I've just about weaned myself off asthma inhalers by taking regular exercise & steering clear of situations that make it worse (cold/ damp weather for one). Whole foods rather than packets & jars filled with preservatives & additives too!

  3. This graphic is absolutely staggering and really makes clear the possible harmful effects of our consumption. Similar story to you Gemma, my mother had been prescribed and taking panadeine forte for migraine for the last 15 years or so, I can't imagine the harm that prolonged use has put her at risk of. But even so, with her constant use she built such a tolerance that 2 pills would fail to have any impact. Just to illustrate, she gave me half one of these to combat cramp and I was off my face, so much so I apparently tried to score my next door neighbour who had come on a camping trip with us and was staying in my tent (my brother and sister were in the tent at the same time!!!).

    I digress... A trip to a nutritionist 3 months ago with a change of diet and unsuprisingly my mother reported "this is the first time I've worked a whole school term without a headache". This illustration with the traffic light colour scheme shows clearly all the red lights. I would love it if this illustration was contained in the prescription packaging.