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Polypharmacy Widespread in Older Adults

September 02, 2016

The number of elderly patients receiving multiple medications to treat chronic diseases is increasing nationwide, putting them at ever-higher risks of dangerous drug interactions and serious adverse effects, according to a recent story in Kaiser Health News (KHN).

Multiple drugs are often prescribed to patients by various specialists who never communicate with each other. When those patients are hospitalized, doctors making the rounds add even more medications to the list—some necessary, some unsuitable.

Maristela Garcia, MD, director of the inpatient geriatric unit at UCLA Medical Center (CA), told KHN: “This is America’s other drug problem—polypharmacy. And the problem is huge.”
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Older adults account for approximately 35% of all hospital stays but for more than half of the visits that involve drug-related complications. Such complications add approximately three days to the average hospital stay, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition, when doctors in the hospital change or add to the list of medications, patients often return home uncertain about what to take. If patients have dementia or are unclear about their medications, and they don’t have a family member or a caregiver to help, the consequences can be disastrous, KHN said.

KHN said the Institute of Medicine determined that at least 400,000 preventable adverse drug events occur each year in American hospitals. Such events, which can result from the wrong prescription or the wrong dosage, pushed health-care costs up by approximately $3.5 billion in 2006.

The article points to several studies published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggesting that having a pharmacist on teams caring for older patients can reduce drug complications and hospitalizations. —Amanda Del Signore

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