A growing number of people in Australia and New Zealand — especially older adults — are taking multiple prescription and over-the-counter medicines and supplements at the same time. But taking all of those medicines and supplements — some of which may not be needed — can increase the risk of side effects and dangerous drug interactions. It’s important to make sure that you are taking only what is necessary. Read on to learn more.
What’s behind the increase?
The number of older people who are taking prescription medications is increasing. And so is the number of people taking more than five medications and supplements — a practice known as polypharmacy. Researchers point to two possible drivers of this increase. One is that some people are receiving care from more than one doctor and those doctors may not be aware of the medicines and supplements that have been prescribed or recommended by their peers. The other is that people don’t always tell their doctors (and doctors don’t always ask) about their use of supplements and over-the-counter medications.
Are we overmedicating? A look at the numbers
Studies have shown that:
- One-third of the population has two or more chronic conditions.
- 20-50% of adults 65 years and over, are taking medications that they may not need.
Problems caused by taking too many medicines
Taking too many medicines can lead to a number of issues, including:
- An increased risk of side effects
- Drug interactions
- Urinary incontinence
- An increased risk of falls
- Trouble thinking or concentrating
- Poor nutrition
- Trouble performing regular daily activities
- Higher healthcare costs
Interestingly, around $1.2 million each year is spent on medication related hospital admissions and half of these hospital admissions could be preventable.
Before you stop any of your medicines, how can you determine what you need or don’t need? Read on.
Steps to make sure you’re not taking medicines or supplements you don’t need
Whether you take prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, supplements, or a combination of these, it’s important to work with all of your healthcare providers to make sure that you take only what is necessary for you. Here are tips to help you get started:
- If possible, have one regular doctor that you see so that your medical records are in one place.
- Keep a list of all of the medicines you take, including prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, and supplements. Consider using a medication tracker to help you stay on top of your medicines. And be sure to share the list with all your healthcare providers so that they know what you are taking.
- Ask your doctor why he or she has prescribed a medicine (or medicines) for you. For example, ask which medical condition it is used to treat, how to take it properly, and how long you need to take it.
- Ask your doctor for a referral for a “Homes Medicines Review (HMR)”. This involves bringing all of your medicines (prescription, over-the-counter medicines, supplements, herbal products) to an accredited pharmacist. It’s best to keep them in their original containers. He or she can review them and work together with your doctor to determine which medicines are necessary and can be taken together.
- Ask your pharmacist any questions you may have about the medicines and supplements you are taking. If you have questions about the medicine you’ve been prescribed or are thinking of taking, ask!
If you need to take multiple medicines, it can help to leave your repeat prescriptions at your preferred pharmacy. That way, it’s all in one place and you are less likely to misplace them. The pharmacist can also remind you when to return to the doctor for a new prescription. There are also mobile phone apps that can help you manage your medications such as MedicineWise in Australia. Remember, your pharmacist can help with ways to help reduce medication errors.
If you or someone you know experiences a serious reaction to a medicine, please contact your healthcare professional. You may also wish to report the side effect to the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia by calling 1800 020 653 or by visiting https://www.tga.gov.au/reporting-problems; or Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring in New Zealand by calling 0800 4Monitor (0800 466 678) or by visiting https://nzphvc.otago.ac.nz/consumer-reporting/.
- 1. Elliott RA, Booth JC. Problems with medicine use in older Australians: a review of recent literature. Journal of Pharmacy Practice and Research 2014; 44: 258–271
- 2. Nishtala PS, Salahudeen MS. Temporal Trends in Polypharmacy and Hyperpolypharmacy in Older New Zealanders over a 9-Year Period: 2005–2013. Gerontology. 2015;61(3):195-202.
- 3. Harrison C, Henderson J, Miller G, et al. The prevalence of complex multimorbidity in Australia. Aust NZ J Public Health. 2016; 40:239-44
- 4. Anderson K, Stowasser D, Freeman C, et al. Prescriber barriers and enablers to minimising potentially inappropriate medications in adults: a systematic review and thematic synthesis. BMJ Open 2014;4:1-18
- 5. Chen T. Pharmacist-Led Home Medicines Review and Residential Medication Management Review: The Australian Model. Drugs Aging (2016) 33:199–204