Age UK has published a new report calling for a more considered approach to prescribing for older patients as evidence shows that prescribing more drugs isn’t always the best option.

Polypharmacy and deprescribing is a big issue for nearly two million older people, some of whom are on over seven prescription medicines putting them at risk of side effects that are severe in some cases, and occasionally even life threatening.

The new report called ‘More Harm than Good’, that says too many older people in our society are on too many prescribed medicines, putting them at risk of side effects that in a worrying number of cases can lead to falls and a range of other serious harms.

It also demonstrates that at the moment medicines are sometimes being prescribed:

  • in excessive numbers
  • in unsafe combinations
  • without the consent or involvement of the older people concerned
  • and without the support and help older people need to take them.

This causes significant numbers of older people avoidable harm and they are more at risk of this than other age groups as they are much more likely to have more than one health condition and to be on multiple medications.

Review of overprescribing in the NHS needed

Age UK estimates that almost two million people over 65 are likely to be taking at least seven prescribed medicines. This number doubles to approaching four million for those taking at least five medicines.

In England overall more than one in 10 people aged over 65 takes at least eight different prescribed medications weekly, and this increases to one in four among people who are aged over 85.

Age UK is calling on the Government to take fully into account the harmful effects of inappropriate ‘polypharmacy’ (multiple medicine use) on older people as it carries out a review of overprescribing in the NHS.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said: "It is really important that a clinician, typically your GP, has a good overview of all your medicines and considers from time to time with you whether they are still the best for your health, not only on their own but when taken together with the other medications you are on. 

“Our strong advice to older people is never to stop taking any of your medications off your own bat, but to talk to your GP if you have concerns and to ask for a review if you haven’t had one for a year or more. Everyone’s needs change over time and new treatments are always becoming available so it is well worth your doctor looking at whether your medicines are the best they can be and, indeed, whether they are all still necessary. Most older people would agree that the fewer pills they have to pop, the better.

“This NHS review of overprescribing is happening not before time because the problem is not new and, as our report shows, it can have a really damaging impact on older people’s lives. We will look forward to seeing the outcomes and we are confident that there is much more that can be done to ensure every older person gets the medicines they really need – neither too many nor too few – which given the NHS’s spiralling drugs bill will be good for us all as taxpayers as well.”

This issue will be covered in more details at the GM Conference that takes place in October.