Nearly one million Australians over 70 are taking five or more medicines every day, and this number is continuing to grow, researchers from the Universities of Western Australia and New South Wales have revealed in the Medical Journal of Australia.
Using multiple drugs together, especially five or more, can produce several adverse outcomes including side effects, dysphagia, nutritional deficiencies, impaired cognition, falls, hospital admissions and mortality.
In fact, the World Health Organisation has set a target to halve polypharmacy and other unsafe prescription practices as part of its third global patient safety challenge to reduce medication-related harm.
Older adults tend to have several chronic conditions and often take different drugs to reduce the symptoms and risk of complications. People with higher needs, hospital inpatients and aged care residents tend to take the most meds.
Drawing from a nationally representative sample of people eligible for PBS-listed drugs between 2006 and 2017, Dr Amy Page and co-authors found that the prevalence of polypharmacy grew by nine percent.
And because of population growth, there was a 52 percent increase in the number of people taking five or more medicines a day over that period. In community care, the number of older adults receiving medications has grown rapidly, doubling over the past 20 years.
The researchers say these estimates may be conservative, because they don’t factor in medicines and supplements obtained without a prescription.
Some medicines stopped being subsidised and would also have not been recorded; this may account for the fact that medication use started to decline again after 2016 – although it was close to one million in 2017.
It must also be noted that some drugs are being combined to reduce pill burden, and this should be factored into future investigations.
The researchers report that Australia’s polypharmacy rates are higher than the US or the UK and have been for some time.
While some medications may be necessary for older adults, there is widespread concern about inappropriate polypharmacy and its detrimental outcomes.
Professor Sarah Hilmer from the University of Sydney is one advocate for “deprescribing” unnecessary drugs – noting that some are used as preventative measures and are not even addressing an existing condition.
Sometimes people continue taking drugs into old age when they no longer need them. “Compounding this,” says Hilmer, “is the issue of the prescribing cascade – doctors prescribing a drug to treat the effects of another drug to treat the effects of another drug, without realising they are doing so.”
Her team is working on written resources for consumers as well as doctors.
Dr Page agrees, saying that strategies to improve people’s awareness about the potential risks in taking several medications should target both the public and health professionals.