A letter from our CEO, Peter Calfee.

The pharmaceutical industry likes to pretend its products offer a straightforward path to better health. But that’s a lot to swallow, because all sorts of things can go wrong.

Medical errors, including prescription drug mistakes, account for 35 million hospitalizations and 251,000 deaths every year, according to a 2016 study by Johns Hopkins researchers. In fact, medical errors are the third highest cause of death in the United States.

So when you open up a prescription bottle, you may be putting your life in your hands.

There are other reasons to reconsider prescription drugs, of course. Costs are skyrocketing, and copays and exclusions seem to rise every year. Then there’s the question of adverse effects. Sleep-aid prescriptions are sending people on zombie walks to the refrigerator or worse, while opioids are addicting—or even killing—alarming numbers of prescribed users. And often, the list of negative side effects is longer than the beneficial ones.

The search is on for safer alternatives, and ones patients can control themselves, based on how they make them feel. All the better if they’re grown in the garden, or in a field down the road. And there’s good reason to harvest your own cures: Plant-based medicines have been working for centuries. The latest lab-created prescription drugs have been through rounds of testing that occured over a few years, at best. Effective herbal medicines have been used for thousands of years. As a report in Pharmacognosy Reviews points out, “Healing with medicinal plants is as old as mankind itself.”

Of course, herbals have their own safety concerns and dosing challenges to obtain consistent results. But technology is opening new doors for personal care.

The Digital Connection With Age-Old Herbal Medicines

The global market for herbal medicines has gone through sunflower-like growth, shooting up from $60 billion in 2003, to $83 billion in 2012 for traditional Chinese medicines alone, according to research by the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. That’s a lot of herbal enthusiasts, each of whom are conducting a sort of medical research on themselves. And there’s a certain logic to that, given repeated evidence that the drug companies can’t be trusted to release all of the results of their own drug trials. Citizen scientists will be aware of results—good, bad or indifferent—from plant-derived medicines they test themselves.

Digital apps are already valuable tools in self care, from tracking fitness regimens to medication schedules. But the next step is to apply the information-gathering abilities of apps and build data around plant-based medicines.       

There is a movement underway to utilize technology to better chart the course of self care and alternative medicine therapies. The key is providing a user-friendly platform for a person to track their consumption of plant-based medicines and their observed efficacy. What’s truly valuable is bringing together these anecdotal reports of citizen scientists and building a database of anonymous, HIPAA-compliant information.

The more data is accumulated, the better it can be applied for those integrating alternative medicines into their lifestyle as it relates to certain conditions and ailments.

For example, if 100 consumers tried a certain plant-based medicine to stimulate appetite and 75 noted it was very effective for this purpose while 25 noted it didn’t work at all, this will help inform other consumers on whether it’s an option worth trying for that desired outcome and the likelihood it will be effective for them.

Creating Personal Protocols for Plant Medicine

As people sort through the possibilities, they need to remember that each plant is unique, just like every person. And when you think about the global garden of healers serving the 80 percent of the world’s population that uses herbal remedies, there’s plenty of room for variations.

Medical researchers use a website called ResearchGate to solicit advice about their studies. One pharmacology researcher posted this stumper on the website: “How can we decide the dose for an herbal drug for therapeutic effect?” The answers boiled down to two words: “It depends….” That is, dosing depends on the potency of the plant medicine; how much is too much, or too little; how the medication is measured and administered; where and how the plants are grown. Also, what time of day the herbal medicine is ingested, and whether it’s taken on a full or empty stomach.

To protect themselves, people need to follow protocols, just like lab scientists.

First, they should buy their herbals from manufacturers that verify active ingredients. A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania revealed that certain sought-after plant extracts didn’t contain any of the claimed active ingredient. So, do your research. Dig past the first page of search-engine results and try a variety of search terms. Flag items and make lists of products and manufacturers.

If you’re aiming to treat a certain condition, seek out support groups. Social media can be a powerful tool for finding others who can relate and share their stories and strategies when it comes to alternative therapies.    

When you find a legitimate herbal product, you’ll also need a uniform and effective way to administer it and monitor outcomes. Use the herbal product at the same time or times of the day, for uniform results. And most important of all, keep track of dosing, timing and results. Utilize a tracker health app for this purpose, and build up a database of your own that you can share with your health-care team. Only then will you be able to determine what actually works for you and explore new options effectively.

Accumulating personal data may be the ultimate therapeutic approach for modern medicine: A consumer-driven, calculated effort to find what works best for you. Big Pharma might not be willing or able to tell you that. So find out for yourself.