Study finds 10% of medicines in England are overprescribed

An alarming number of people in England are being prescribed medicines unnecessarily, which could harm their health, according to a UK government review.

The study, led by the chief pharmaceutical officer for England Dr Keith Ridge, estimates that 10% of items dispensed in primary care are inappropriate or could be better served with alternative treatments.

At the same time, 15% of people are taking five or more medicines a day and one in five hospital visits in the over-65s are caused by drug side effects, according to the report, which stresses that overprescribing is a global issue.

Some medicines, such as those to reduce blood pressure, can also increase the risk of falls among the frail and elderly, it notes.

The government said it intends to appoint a new national clinical director for prescribing, who will oversee a three-year programme based on research and training to try to improve prescribing practices in the NHS.

It will also follow other advice in the review, including shared decision making with patients about starting or stopping a medicine and better use of data and digital technology – such as improved electronic health records – to identify and tackle overprescribing.

Other measures will focus on ways to review prescriptions more effectively, and encouraging prescribers to consider alternative medicines which may be more effective, according to the government.

There will also be a drive to improve the evidence base for withdrawing inappropriate medication – known as deprescribing – and to ensure GPs are empowered to challenge and change prescribing made in hospitals.

The report was welcomed by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, saying that pharmacists across the country will be eager to work alongside the patients and communities to reduce the harm that medicines can cause when overprescribed.

“Medicines do people a lot of good and this report is absolutely not about taking treatment or services away from people where they are effective,” Ridge told the BBC. “But medicines can also cause harm and can be wasted.”

There’s also an environmental aspect to the new measures, namely reducing the NHS’ carbon emissions.

Currently, 25% of the NHS carbon footprint is as a result of medicines, and while some of this results from the use of anaesthetic gases and inhalers, it is mostly caused by manufacturing and freight in the supply chain.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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