Joe Graedon got interested in pharmacology while working as a conscientious objector at the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute in Princeton.
He later took a masters degree in pharmacology at the University of Michigan, then taught pharmacology at the medical school in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now lives in Durham, North Carolina, and writes a syndicated column, "The People's Pharmacy," which provides self-care drug information. He is a consultant and guest lecturer at the Duke School of Nursing, and teaches a course called "Pharmacology for People" in the Continuing Education Program at Duke. He does a biweekly radio show for National Public Radio, and serves as a consultant to the Federal Trade Commission.
He is the author of The People's Pharmacy, and the drugs editor of Medical Self-Care Magazine.
TF: You were saying that you first got interested in helping laypeople learn about drugs because your friends used to ask you questions.
JG: Yes. When people learned I was a pharmacologist, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers would have all these questions about the drugs they were taking: "the little blue pill I'm taking for my high blood pressure," "the little white pill for depression," and so on. And when I asked them the name of the drug, they practically never knew. I was struck by how commonly people take drugs—some of them very potent ones—completely on blind faith. They didn't know the first thing about them. They didn't know the side effects, they didn't know the possible interactions with other drugs. In many cases they didn't even know exactly what the drug was supposed to do.
They certainly wanted to know, but their doctors just weren't making the information available. And I began to realize that there were a lot of people out there who wanted to know about drugs. who weren't getting the information they needed from the people who should be supplying it. So I thought, who better than a pharmacologist with a special interest in communication to try to provide some of this information.
What are the most important things for people to know about drugs?
The first and foremost thing is not to focus exclusively on drugs. If you have an ailment, the most important thing is to understand what's going on and how it relates to the rest of your life. First, try to understand the problem, its causes, its signs and symptoms. Then you can go on to possible ways of treatment, with drugs being just one possible kind of treatment.
What are the things a person should be sure to ask when his doctor wants to prescribe a drug?
You should ask whether the drug is intended to give purely symptomatic relief, or whether it will actually help the body cure the underlying ailment. People tend to focus exclusively on side effects, and while that's vital, it's also crucial to know what the anticipated benefits are. Any time you're considering taking a drug, you've got to weigh potential benefits against potential drawbacks.
And that would be true for over-the-counter drugs as well.
Yes. Another thing you should always do when your doctor wants to prescribe a drug for you: Know the name of the drug. That should be an absolute rule. It sounds simplistic, but it's frequently not provided to the consumer. Make sure that your doctor pronounces the name of the drug so that you can understand it, and pronounce it back. Many drugs have difficult names.