Humanities students are far more likely than science students to believe that prescribed drugs can be harmful, new research suggests.
While those studying history might think twice about reaching into the medicine cabinet, most of those studying pharmacy would show no hesitation.
A study has revealed that attitudes to drug-taking may become set from adolescence. But those with the most confidence in the effects of medicine may wrongly assume others feel the same if they come to be involved in prescribing drugs after graduation.
These are the conclusions drawn by Brighton University researcher Robert Horne and John Weinman of Guy's Hospital, after surveying 600 students about their attitudes to medicines and prescriptions.
Their results suggest culture plays a significant role in forming attitudes, but there was also an important relationship between university course and attitude.
Between a third and a half of medicines prescribed by doctors are not taken as suggested, according to Dr Horne.
"Medicines account for 10 per cent of NHS spending," he said. "This is a substantial cost. We have recently found many patients are reluctant to take prescribed medicines because of concerns about becoming dependent on them or risking long-term side-effects. We therefore need to understand from the patients' perspective why they are not being used as prescribed. We also need to know where people get beliefs about prescribed medicines from."
Questionnaires were sent to 600 students at Brighton University asking them which cultural group they were from. Comparing students of like age and university course, Asian students were found to tend to see medicines as less beneficial and intrinsically more harmful than their white peers did. This, Dr Horne suggests, may be due to differences in approaches to medicine in the West and in traditionally Asian environments where herbs are used as part of a more holistic approach.
Researchers also found that, after taking into account the effects of cultural origins, there was a significant difference in attitude towards medicines between students taking different subjects.
Pharmacy students were far more likely than engineering, accountancy, social policy and humanities groups to believe medicines were beneficial and less likely to see them as intrinsically harmful, addictive poisons that should not be taken for long periods. Humanities students were much more likely to believe medicines were over-prescribed.
Pharmacy, accountancy and engineering students were much less likely to see themselves as sensitive to the adverse effects of medicines than social policy and humanities students. The former groups listed far fewer problems associated with taking medicines than the social scientists.
Dr Horne said: "It was quite surprising that such clear differences existed between students on the basis of their chosen courses. In the case of pharmacy students, positive orientation towards medicines might have influenced their choice of degree. But the same could not be said for mechanical engineers, who had more positive views about medicines than all other groups except pharmacy. This raised the nature-nurture question. Did pharmacy students start out with a more positive view of medicines or were their attitudes shaped by the course?" Responses of first- and third-year pharmacy students were compared to see whether their attitudes towards medicines changed as they progressed through the course. No significant difference was found, suggesting views were already formed.
"These findings suggest that views about medication might form fairly early on, possibly during adolescence," said Dr Horne.
"These are all students in the same university with many shared experiences, but there were already definable differences. The implications may be that pharmacy students come to practise they assume everyone has the same positive attitudes towards medicines as they have. They may therefore be less likely to anticipate that their patients may feel reluctant to take medicines."
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