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HEALTH MATTERS: Medicines have their place but are not the only answer

By Dr Tim Allison

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Medication should be just one element of a healthy lifestyle – and is not always the right answer.
Medication should be just one element of a healthy lifestyle – and is not always the right answer.

Almost all of us will use medicines and tablets either regularly or occasionally.

Some may be prescribed for us while others may be bought over the counter at a pharmacist.

Of course we use medication to improve our health, but the relationship between medication and health can be a complicated one.

Sometimes medicines and tablets can have a harmful effect on us and on others.

Like other Directors of Public Health, I write a report on the health of local people each year.

It is a great privilege to be able to do this and to have the opportunity to communicate important messages to a wide audience.

The reports often have themes and the theme that I chose for the report this year was medication and public health.

Some medication can be greatly beneficial for public health.

One example I use in the report is new medication for Hepatitis C which is a viral infection passed by blood or body fluids.

People may not know that they have the virus and coming forward to get tested is important for people who may be at higher risk of being infected.

Treatment in the past for people diagnosed with Hepatitis C needed injections and could have resulted in significant side effects.

This could have discouraged people from coming forward to be tested.

The new tablet treatment now available has few side effects and can be taken over a short time.

I hope that the knowledge of effective treatment will encourage more people to come forward for testing and so help to eliminate the virus.

Medication can sometimes cause harm though.

An example that I cover in my recent report is the effects that medicines can have on the wider environment.

Medicines can get into the environment if they are not disposed of correctly and, in addition, the individual products of medicines get into wastewater after we have taken them.

Subsequently the medicines can get into plants and animals in water and in crops.

However, there is a lot that we can do the reduce any harmful effects of medication on the world around us.

We can ensure that we only order the medicines that we need so that we avoid waste.

It is important to use medication in the right way, for example when it comes to the right technique for using an inhaler.

If we need to dispose of unused medication, then we should take it to the community pharmacist or GP.

There is a balance when it comes to medicine and the health of the public.

I have quoted two examples here and there are more contained in the report.

Sometimes medicines are essential to have good health, but on other occasions there are better alternatives.

Most often, we need to combine different approaches.

For example, heart disease will be helped by medicines but there is also a need for the right level of physical activity in daily life, a healthy diet and stopping smoking.

n Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland director of public health and policy.

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