The Nation's Health + [Omega-3 fatty acids]

Omega-3 fatty acids: Fish oil and the perverse logic of hospitals

Hospitals are now starting to carry prescription fish oil, known as Omacor, on their formularies. It's used by some thoracic surgeons after bypass surgery, since fish oil has been shown to reduce the likelihood of atrial fibrillation (a common rhythm after heart surgery).

Why now? The data confirming the benefits of fish oil on atrial fibrillation has been available for several years.

It's now available in hospitals because it's FDA-approved. In other words, when fish oil was just a supplement, it was not available in most hospitals. Whenever I've tried to get fish oil for my patients while in hospital, you'd think I was trying to smuggle Osama Bin Laden into the place. The resistance was incredible.

Now that FDA-approved Omacor is available, costing $130 dollars per month for two capsules, $195 for the three capsule per day dose for after surgery, all of a sudden it becomes available. Why would this irrational state of affairs occur in hospitals?

Several reasons, most of which revolve around the great suspicion my colleagues have towards nutritional supplements. In addition, there's the litigation risk: If something has been approved by the FDA, their stamp of endorsement provides some layer of legal protection.

However, I regard those as pretty weak reasons. I am, indeed, grateful that fish oil is gaining a wider audience. But I think it's absurd that it requires a prescription to get it in many hospitals. Imagine, as the drug companies would love, vitamin C became a prescription agent. Instead of $3, it would cost far more. Does that make it better, safer, more effective?

Of course, no drug sales representative is promoting the nutritional supplement fish oil to physicians nor to hospitals. I now see people adding the extraordinary expense of prescription fish oil to their presription bills.

In my view, it's unnecessary, irrational, and driven more by politics and greed than actual need. Take a look at the website for Omacor (www.omacorrx.com). Among the claims:

"OMACOR is the only omega-3 that, along with diet, has been proven and approved to dramatically reduce very high triglycerides..."

This is a bald lie. Dozens of studies have used nutritional supplement fish oil and shown spectacular triglyceride-reducing effects.

Their argument against fish oil supplements:

"Dietary supplements are not FDA-approved for the treatment of any specific disease or medical condition. Get the Facts: nonprescription, dietary supplement omega-3 is not a substitute for prescription OMACOR."

Does that make any sense to you? Should you buy a GM car because only GM makes genuine GM cars? This is the silly logic being offered by these people to justify their ridiculous pricing.

How about: "The unique manufacturing process for OMACOR helps to eliminate worries about mercury and other pollution from the environment."

Funny...mercury in fish tends to be sequestered in the meat, not the oil. Independent reports by both Consumer Reports and Consumer Lab found no mercury, nor PCB's, in nutritional supplement fish oil. But just suggesting a difference without proving it may be enough to scare some people.

Just because something is used by a hospital does not make it better. The adoption of fish oil is hospitals is a good thing. Too bad it has to add to already bloated health care costs to enrich some drug manufacturer.