Dr. James Marcum is a cardiologist at the Chattanooga Heart Institute in Tennessee, but his message of healing spreads far beyond his patients. He’s an author, as well as a radio and television host of the programs Heartwise, the The Heart of Health Live.
A key point of Marcum’s message is something you don’t often hear from an MD. According to him, pharmaceutical drugs don’t heal people. In fact, much of the time they do more harm than good.
Marcum’s message stands in stark contrast to the modern American medical model—by far the most drug-centric system in the world—where patients largely reach for pills to treat their health issues. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the U.S. holds five percent of the world’s population, but takes 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs.
And our reliance on drug treatment only continues to grow. A study published in the November 2015 issue of JAMA found that U.S. prescription drug use increased from 51 percent in 1999-2000 to 59 percent in 2011-2012, while those taking five or more prescription drugs increased from 8 percent to 15 percent.
Relaxed rules on drug marketing is one reason why national drug use rates are so high. Aside from New Zealand, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation where drug companies can advertise directly to consumers.
Weighing the Risks
Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stroke are typically acknowledged as the leading causes of death in the U.S.—combined they take well over a million American lives every year. But according to Marcum, medicine may actually be the nation’s number one killer.
His latest book, “Medicines That Kill,” discusses what he calls the “hidden epidemic” of drug related deaths. They can stem from mistakes (made during production, at the pharmacy, or at home), adverse reactions, and drug interactions, as well as the high rates of addiction and overdose that continue to ravage the country. Yet, unlike cancer and heart disease, many prescription drug related deaths often go unreported.
“I try to prevent deaths from cardiovascular disease,” Marcum writes. “But it is plausible to conclude—after studying these numbers and thinking about the problem of medications—that my time seeing patients might be better spent combating deaths from medications and educating the world about the dangers of taking prescription and nonprescription medications. In the long run, I might save more lives!”
Marcum still prescribes drugs for his patients, and he admits to witnessing incredible results with drugs in certain instances. But he’s also seen first hand the damage drugs can do. If a problem can be solved or a dosage reduced with a change in diet or lifestyle, that’s the strategy Marcum encourages patients to try.
The Epoch Times talked to Dr. Marcum about the dangers of pharmaceutical use, and why it’s so hard to change our drug-based approach.
Epoch Times: Much of your book is devoted to all the risks associated with prescription and over-the-counter medications. Given the amount of damage that drugs can do, why do you think we hear these warnings so rarely?
Dr. James Marcum: To be honest with you, it’s money and marketing. I hate to say that, but right now one in every four to five dollars spent on healthcare goes to drug treatment, and the pharmaceutical industry and the drug lobbyists are making big money. They have members on almost all the committees that make these big decisions regarding health care in America, and we have grown a culture of treating symptoms and not causes. We have all these medicines to treat chronic disease, but they don’t get at the problem.
Epoch Times: There’s no incentive for the industry to change, but what about consumers? If the system appeals to our quick fix mentality, how do you get your patients to adopt drug-free methods to solve their health problems?
Dr. Marcum: When people come to my office and they’re on sleeping pills, I say, “Wouldn’t it better if you quit drinking so much caffeine, or didn’t eat so much late at night?”
Yes, Americans don’t want to do what it takes to get them better, but I’ve learned in my practice that if I identify with them and try to find one thing they can do to help their health, such as drinking more water, or getting up and moving every hour, and seeing how they feel in a week or two. When they say they feel better, then I have them take another step.
When you educate patients they’re more likely to make changes one step at a time. That’s been my approach lately. Go slow. Meet them where they are. Of course, if you have a patient who is going to die if they don’t make some changes, it becomes a lot easier for them to do something. If they’re in their 40s or 50s and they have chronic heart disease, and they’ve already had two bypass surgeries there’s nothing much more modern medicine can do. If they don’t make changes in diet and stress, they die young.
Epoch Times: One of themes of your book is that patients need to take responsibility for their own health care. Why isn’t it enough to just go along with what the doctor says?
Dr. Marcum: The doctor has limited time to spend with you so they’re never going to figure out exactly what’s wrong. We are our own best earthly physician, and no one knows your body better than you.
Modern medicine is great for emergencies, but we need to learn to take responsibility for the rest. We need to take stress off our body, whether it’s moving more, or drinking water (which 70 percent of people don’t do).
Lots of people don’t get outside, so they have vitamin D deficiencies. People are stuffing themselves with so much fat and protein that it damages their bodies. The average person spends 12 hours looking at media every day. What that does to the body, the stress, and all that adrenaline, actually changes our epigenetics.
As people realize these things, they can change their physiology and chemistry so that they can prevent chronic problems that 80 to 90 percent of people come to the office now have.
But doctors assume that the patients don’t want to do anything to change. So we tell people they don’t have to worry about their illness. We tell people we can fix the problem with modern medicine. But in the last 25 to 30 years, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, joint disease, mental health problems—they’ve all remained flat or gone up. So the evidence is clear: we haven’t fixed our system, and it’s getting worse.
The government is not going to fix the system. The pharmaceutical industry and insurance companies are not going to do it. The hospitals and doctors are not going to do it. You have to realize that it starts with you. One person at a time can take control of the choices they make, and the way they change their physiology. Unless people band together and demand this of their health care system, it’s just going to perpetuate itself.
Epoch Times: Many believe the cures of the future are going to come from miraculous new medicines. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this hope.
Dr. Marcum: There is a difference between medicine and healing. Medicine treats symptoms and not causes. Medicines have their use. Antibiotics worked great when they started, but we’ve overused them so much that now we’re having antibiotic resistance. Drugs are great for an acute problem to get us over the hump, so we can evaluate what caused the problem in the first place.
Cancer is one example. The drugs for cancer don’t cure it, and they also have dangerous side effects. There might be some appropriate uses for it, but it doesn’t fix the problem. In fact, very few medicines that I know of fix problems. They just treat the symptoms, and at best give the body a chance to heal itself. But we have to use the medicines very carefully because they can kill us as well.
Drugs are all about risk and benefits, but with how it is in health care, we don’t have time to explain things or talk to patients. That’s why I wrote this book—so patients can have a little more information, be a little more careful with their medicines, and understand the risks of narcotics, sleeping pills, antibiotics, and chemotherapy.
Modern medicine treats problems with a process called reductionalism, where you reduce things to just one chemical pathway. But the body is much more complicated than that.
That’s why I advocate holism. Try to find things that you can do to change the chemistry of the entire body so you go back to how we were designed to operate. If you can do something else to take away the problem, you might not have to take a medicine for the rest of your life.
Epoch Times: So drugs should be a last resort.
Dr. Marcum: If possible. Now if you have an emergency, I want the drugs to treat you. If a person who comes to me is having a heart attack, I’m going to treat them with modern medicine so the heart attack doesn’t kill them. Then when they come back, I’m going to say, ‘Listen, this why you had the heart attack.’ And list the chronic stresses, the foods, and other issues. If we can change these things you can reverse the disease.
That’s the approach I think modern medicine should have. And we should be teaching this to the next generation so that we don’t have all these problems. But it takes time to do it right. It’s easy to write a prescription.
Epoch Times: You write about how faith plays a key role in healing. Why is this important?
Dr. Marcum: I probably could have sold more copies of the book if I would have left the spiritual part out of it. But I felt like if I was going to say that there is a problem in the world I have to leave the reader with a solution.
I believe there is a creator who made us a certain way to live. And as we departed over time from that way of life—that plan—it has put stress on our bodies. That stress raises epinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol, which over long periods of time damages our body. It eventually leads to disease and symptoms. Then we seek medicine.
The secret to treating chronic stress is to move back toward the creator’s plan one step at a time. It may be walking, getting outside, loving each other, or eating a healthier diet. If we get back to that plan, our bodies do better.
I recently attended a seminar studying the physiology of worship. It was about how worship, in and of itself, changes the chemistry of the brain for the good and turns down stress from the body. So we have evidence that worship is a treatment. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has done that research.
This idea is not making a lot of money, so you’re not going to see a lot of studies on it, but that’s the direction I want to give people to look into. Try changing the things in your own life. To feel better, do better. Let the experience of your own body be the evidence that moves you forward.
Epoch Times: You mention ancient doctors in your book such as Hippocrates. What can they teach us?
Dr. Marcum: Well, one of Hippocrates most famous sayings is, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” He recognized that a lot of things are in our environment because they’re made to heal our bodies. Our body is really made to heal itself if we give it appropriate things to do it. He recognized that food is a big contributor to chronic disease.
Epoch Times: I want to talk about Brenda—a patient you mention in your book who is on 16 medications by the time she comes to see you. Her prescriptions come from several different doctors, and her health just gets worse the more drugs she is given. Yet the previous doctors’ solution is always to give her more drugs. Given that the risk of adverse reactions increase when drugs are combined, why isn’t there something in our system to prevent this scenario?
Dr. Marcum: I had the record two weeks ago. A patient came into my office on 33 medications written by six different doctors. Half of the medications were to treat symptoms from the original prescriptions.
But who wants to take her off of them? If one doctor tries it and anything goes wrong guess who is going to get sued? The prescribing doctors also might get mad and stop referring patients.
There is no impetus for anybody to take people off of medications. No one is getting paid to help people get better. I see 32 patients a day. I get 10 minutes with a returning patient, 20 minutes with a new patient. And I just deal with cardiovascular problems. With most of the doctors I work with, that’s their schedule now. So how much can you really accomplish in that period of time? Not very much. And if you don’t meet your quotas, guess what? They move you down the road.
We’re employees as long as we’re bringing money into the system. We get money by moving patients in and out, and by ordering tests. We get paid to keep the system going. Will it ever change? I doubt it. No one is going to legislate this because it’s about money, power, and people making a living.
Epoch Times: I wonder if this kind of thing happens in countries that have universal health care.
Dr. Marcum: No, it doesn’t. They won’t pay for all this. They make you take responsibility.
I was in New Zealand not too long ago, and they don’t do bypasses on everybody. If you’re above a certain age or have certain health problems, you don’t get coverage for the bypass surgery. You either start eating healthy and exercise, or you die young. That’s your choice.
People in the U.S. say this model of health care is the worst thing in the world. They say, “Where are our individual rights?” That’s why in our country, drugs and unhealthy living is perpetuated.
Epoch Times: So in a sense our medical system protects us from personal responsibility.
Dr. Marcum: It does. That’s why Obamacare and all the other systems out there aren’t going to solve this problem. It’s just perpetuating this in a different way.
That’s why the change has to start with individuals. It’s not going to start with government mandates. It has to start with each person realizing, “I’m responsible for me, so I have to get the information.” Luckily we have the internet, books, and other education.
You have to realize: “I want a different life. I’m responsible for the body that I’ve been loaned by the creator. It’s something I have to take care of. I’m going to do the best I can because at some point I’m going to have to answer for how I took care of this gift.”
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity