Time will tell.

Recently, I had a new patient who had been inappropriately placed on Fosamax (a bisphosphonate) for a bone density that just barely edged into the osteopenia range. She didn’t like being on it and persuaded her doctor to take her off it after 5 years. Recently, another doctor put her back on it (after 8 years off) because her bone density was about the same (i.e. still osteopenia).
Now, I know that 15 years ago, Fosamax was new and the
drug reps were pushing it hard and everyone thought it was the bee’s knees, so it’s understandable (but not justifiable) for her doctor to have placed her on Fosamax then. Now, however, it’s generic so there’s no drug rep pushing the medication, so why would a physician be prescribing it inappropriately?
Well, despite my
pointing out that this is poor practice by the evidence five years ago, an article on the current evidence of these medications’ lack of benefit with long term use only came out today after FDA presentations about the lack of efficacy.
The risks have been continually underplayed: osteonecrosis of the jaw and atypical fractures. Both of these, like most side effects, are dramatically under-reported. An oral surgeon isn’t going to want it getting out that a patient got osteonecrosis of the jaw, so is going to avoid working on people with risk and downplay what does happen. Meanwhile, atypical fractures aren’t going to get reported simply because the people seeing them (mostly ER docs) are too busy and are just trying to get the patient better. So, the true incidence of these risks is probably dramatically higher than what is reported in the literature.
It’s unfortunate that the real data on risks and lack of benefit of these medications only comes out once the medication goes off patent. We see the same with the PPIs (Prilosec, Nexium, etc): nutritional docs have been pointing out the risks for years, but now that they are off patent, the risks of pneumonia, bone loss, and small intestine bacterial overgrowth are starting to trickle out into the mainstream press.
Could it be that media corporations are hesitant to bite the hand that feeds them? Ever since direct-to-consumer drug advertising started, those advertising dollars have bought silence from the news outlets in addition to interest from patients. Perhaps the for-profit media is only willing to speak ill of a drug once it’s gone generic and the profits have already dried up.