Dr Chris van Tulleken starts his experiment by seeing what the steep rise in prescription rates means for patients. He lays out the pills an average healthy person could take in their lifetime. When he calculates that someone born today might easily consume 100,000 pills, he is shocked.
He knows that many drugs do good. They save lives, but they can all do harm?
Determined to find answers to this crisis in medicine he takes over part of a GP surgery. Dr Chris believes many common illnesses are best treated without drugs, so instead of handing out pills to his patients he will be taking them away!
His first patient, Wendy, has been taking painkillers for the last 20 years to deal with chronic pain in her shoulder. In the last ten years there’s been an almost 50% increase in prescriptions for these drugs. Chris is determined to prove to her that the drugs don’t work. But Wendy will need a lot of convincing.
He devises an experiment – two weeks’ worth of medication with a twist. Some of the pills are placebos, and some are the real thing. She doesn’t know which are which, and she must record her pain levels. Will she be in more pain when she takes only the placebos? Are the pills actually working?
Soon another patient hears about Dr Chris’s clinic. Like five million people in Britain, Sarah is taking antidepressants. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of young people prescribed them shot up by over 50%. Sarah’s been on them since she was 16 – now a mum at 24, she’s desperate to be released from the ‘chemical fog’ she’s living in. To try and succeed where the pills have failed Dr Chris gets Sarah to try a non-drug treatment that his psychiatric colleagues would describe as ‘barbaric’ – swimming in a freezing cold lake.
Back at the surgery, Chris is determined to tackle one of the most terrifying consequences of our pill-popping culture – antibiotic resistance. He discovers that the GPs have one of the highest antibiotic prescription rates in the area. He confronts them in a heated meeting, and they challenge him to prove it can be done differently. 97% of patients who ask for antibiotics get them, and Dr Chris finds himself handing them out – despite his reluctance. Finally Chris finds a solution – but will the doctors take it up?