What’s a medical drug? Ask someone on the street and they’re likely to tell you it’s the kind of thing you take when you’re unwell.
This understanding is wrong, as we will see. But after a thorough investigation, my colleagues and I found no other potential definitions are any better.
Despite their centrality to medicine, we have no idea what medical drugs are. We can’t even tell the difference between drugs and food, let alone drugs and so-called “natural” alternatives.
In a recent article in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, my colleagues (Sara Linton, a pharmacist, and Maureen O’Malley, a philosopher of biology) and I tried to nail down a viable definition of medical drugs.
A viable definition should be broad enough to include everything classified as a drug. To get a sense of this “everything”, we used the drug bank compiled by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, which lists more than 16,000 substances.
A definition should also be narrow enough to exclude substances not typically considered drugs. Take food, for example. Eating a sandwich is usually never thought of as taking a drug.