Mass medication

Polly Curtis of The Guardian has an interesting news piece in today’s edition. Roger Boyle, who is the British government’s health tsar, wants every man over 50 to take anti-cholesterol drugs on a daily basis.

Us menfolks aren’t the only ones coming in for scrutiny: he says all women over 60 should be given statins too. He says this would save hundreds of thousands of lives from cardiovascular disease.

Professor Boyle, the Department of Health’s well-respected national director for heart disease, said the benefits of the cholesterol-busting drugs were proven and the side-effects were among the mildest of any drug. But he said the current method of identifying those at risk was long-winded and meant some people could be waiting too long to take statins.

However, he points out that the public isn’t ready for this blanket approach and that choice is “still an important thing”.

I don’t know how I’d react if I was told: “You’re a certain age, now start taking your pills.” I’d probably freak and refuse to take them on general principal (nothing breeds defiance like being told what to do). But if it can stave off the risk of heart disease with only the mildest of side-effects it might be a course worth pursuing.

I can see the logic in Prof Boyle’s proposal. It would save lives — many, many lives. As a physician employed to oversee strategies to safeguard his nation’s health, this is Boyle’s priority. But it would override the basis of a free society: choice. Acceptance of this policy would require a revolution in cultural thought.

That said, there are ways to accommodate it without coming off as tyrannical. Merely making the drugs available free of charge for all men over 50 would help encourage use without making people feel as if they had to take them. It won’t save lives on the scale envisaged by Boyle but it would save more than the current medication regime does (about 10,000 according to The Guardian).

Of course, this is Britain. Other nations may feel more accommodating to mass medication with statins.

In fairness to Boyle, he’s thinking big. That’s his job. It’s refreshing to see suggestions that would work on a national scale rather than getting bogged down in regional concerns.

Will his proposal ever come off? Not in its current form. But with a few tweaks and moderations, it may be the way forward for state-backed healthcare. A way forward, at least.

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