A quarter of Koreans take prescription drugs

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A quarter of Koreans take prescription drugs


One in every four Koreans was given prescription drugs in the second half of last year, according to analysis from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

Although the use of prescription drugs in itself isn’t controversial, in a country where the misuse of drugs is considered a serious crime, some types of medication included on the list like propofol often make headlines here when celebrities are caught using them without a prescription.

According to the Drug Ministry, a total of 11.9 million Koreans used prescription drugs at least once in the second half of 2018. This was equivalent to one out of every 4.4 Koreans. By gender, women took more than men, accounting for 58.4 percent. More than half of the patients treated with the drugs were in their 40s to 60s, with those in their 50s topping the list at 21.6 percent.

The most frequently prescribed drug on the list of 45 studied by the ministry was propofol. A commonly prescribed sedative, propofol was given to 4.4 million patients over the six-month period.

Propofol is a common prescription drug around the world and is recommended by the World Health Organization, but in Korea it has fallen under stricter regulations than many other prescription drugs since 2011. Doctors giving out prescriptions too often or keeping loose records of its use can be punished by law.

Propofol was also the drug of choice for a number of celebrities jailed for using it illegally, giving it a bad reputation among the public in Korea.

Midazolam came in second, prescribed to 3.3 million patients during the same period. It is also a sedative and is commonly used to treat sleeping disorders and severe agitation. The list went on to include Diazepam and Alprazolam, both medications to treat anxiety.

The prescription drug report comes as Korea grapples with a score of drug scandals. K-pop stars and young members of Korea’s richest conglomerate families made headlines in the last few weeks for their alleged drug usage.

Customs records also show that illegal drug smuggling has increased over the years. Last year, 426 kilograms (939 pounds) of illegal drugs were found by the Korea Customs Service - six times more than in 2017. Experts have said that the internet and social media have made it easier for the general public to find illegal drug distributors.

As drug-related concerns have grown, the Drug Ministry has been putting out measures to enforce the monitoring of drug distribution in the country.

The analysis released Thursday is intended to give doctors an idea of how often drugs are prescribed so that they can have a better idea of what they should do for their own patients.

“This is the first case in which the Drug Ministry has used big data for such a purpose,” the ministry said in a statement. “We’re expecting the data to assist in organizing an environment in which medical drugs can be used in the optimal amount.”

BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]
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