Cocktail of Tablets

The Doctor Who Gave Up on Drugs

Dr Chris van Tulleken tackles the issue of over-prescription of drugs in his two part BBC documentary as titled. He highlights the strengthening resistance of bacteria to antibiotics and gives a dangerous warning as to our future if we don’t curb our pill popping habit. But what of the solution? The TV program is well worth a watch and ventures into the frightening culture of using tablets to fix ourselves that we’ve all become accustomed to.

Over-Prescription – An Exaggeration?

Firstly, are we really taking too many pills as a nation? After all when we go to the doctor and ask for some antibiotics we really need them, right? Apparently not – as The Guardian report on the program states:

“Painkiller prescriptions have increased by 25% over the last five years, despite research showing that such tablets only work around 50% of the time. Five million people in the UK are on antidepressants and their prescribed use among teens has increased by 50% over the past seven years.”

Part of the problem stems from patients asking for antibiotics and GPs only getting a short amount of time (10 mins) to find out what the problem is and offer a solution. This means a huge amount of pills are being prescribed at any one time – indeed, Dr Chris calculates that someone born today might easily consume 100,000 pills during their lifetime.

Two Case Studies

Doctor Chris takes two case studies in the first program – a lady called Wendy who has been taking painkillers for 20 years and another lady called Sarah on anti-depressants. He aims to get them both pill free.

For two weeks Wendy is given her painkillers as usual, however some are placebos. At the end of the trial she plots where she thinks she was given placebos in place of real painkillers and the results show she was wrong; on many occasions where she was given a placebo pill, she believed she was given the real thing.

Dr Chris prescribes Sarah cold water swimming to boost her mood and response. This has mixed results but does make Sarah feel better. Other case studies are shown throughout the two documentaries, one in particular uses kung fu to better a patient’s back pain with exceptional results.

Additionally Dr Chris runs a clinic for a GP – finding it almost impossible not to prescribe pills himself. He also arranges a walking clinic for patients and tries to encourage GPs to use a machine to determine bacterial infections from viral infections, the latter which cannot be treated with antibiotics, in order to reduce prescription rates.


The challenges were many, from feeling unable to let patients leave without a prescription they so clearly wanted, to non-attendees for his free walking clinics. He demonstrated that big pharmaceutical clinics offering free lunches and trips to GPs led to more prescriptions of their particular drugs and his bacterial/viral machine was deemed too expensive for implementation.


Despite numerous problems and challenges thrown up by the documentary, the results of one particular treatment were astounding – exercise.

A group of patients taking tablets to reduce their risk of a heart attack or stroke volunteered for a walking class – they were to take a thirty minute brisk walk five times a week for eight weeks. The group were not impressed by the plan’s simplicity, but that was turned on its head by the results.

Blood sugar levels in all the patients increased. With the type two diabetic volunteers especially, HbA1c levels (the marker for this condition) improved in some patients more from the walking than would be expected with drugs! One patient’s levels improved to the point where their levels were borderline normal. In addition, blood pressure dropped, the patients experienced weight loss and their mood scores soared.

BIA UK’s View

We have always advocated exercise at BIA UK and use this as a staple part of our occupational physiotherapy treatment. Active recovery and getting people moving is a key part of our process and we’re thrilled to see this recognised and proven by the enlightening documentary.

If you’re interested in a workstation assessment whereby one of our occupational physiotherapists comes to your place of work and advises on the ergonomics of your workstation, fill in the short form here.

Workstation assessments are just one of the workplace physiotherapy services that we provide in order to keep your employees fit and healthy and decrease their chance of getting a musculoskeletal condition. More information about us and our services can be found here.