‘Deprescribing’ can prevent harm – especially for older people

Emily Reeve, Monash University; Jacinta L Johnson, University of South Australia; Janet Sluggett, University of South Australia, and Kate O’Hara, University of Newcastle

People are living longer and with more chronic health conditions – including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and dementia – than ever before. As societies continue to grow older, one pressing concern is the use of multiple medications, a phenomenon known as polypharmacy.

About 1 million older Australians experience polypharmacy and this group is increasing. They may wake up in the morning and pop a pill for their heart, then another one or two to control blood pressure, a couple more if they have diabetes, a vitamin pill and maybe one for joint pain.

Polypharmacy is usually defined as taking five or more different medications daily. In aged care homes, 90 per cent of residents take at least five regular medications every single day. That can put their health at risk with increased costs for them and the health system.

Adding up over time

As people age, the effects of medications can change. Some medications, which were once beneficial, might start to do more harm than good or might not be needed anymore. About half of older Australians are taking a medication where the harms likely outweigh the potential benefits.

While polypharmacy is sometimes necessary and helpful in managing multiple health conditions, it can lead to unintended consequences.

Prescription costs can quickly add up. Taking multiple medications can be difficult to manage particularly when there are specific instructions to crush them or take them with food, or when extra monitoring is needed. There is also a risk of drug interactions.

Medications bought ‘over the counter’ without a prescription, such as vitamins, herbal medications or pain relievers, can also cause problems. Some people might take an over-the-counter medication each day due to previous advice, but they might not need it anymore. Just like prescription medications, over-the-counter medications add to the overall burden and cost of polypharmacy as well as drug interactions and side effects.

Unfortunately, the more medications you take, the more likely you are to have problems with your medications, a reduced quality of life and increased risk of falls, hospitalisation and death. Each year, 250,000 Australians are admitted to hospital due to medication-related harms, many of which are preventable. For example, use of multiple medications like sleeping pills, strong pain relievers and some blood pressure medications can cause drowsiness and dizziness, potentially resulting in a fall and broken bones.

Prescribing and deprescribing are both important

Ensuring safe and effective use of medications involves both prescribing, and deprescribing them.

Deprescribing is a process of stopping (or reducing the dose of) medications that are no longer required, or for which the risk of harm outweighs the benefits for the person taking them.

The process involves reviewing all the medications a person takes with a healthcare professional to identify medications that should be stopped.

Think of deprescribing as spring cleaning your medicine cabinet. Just like how you tidy up your house and get rid of objects that are causing clutter without being useful, deprescribing tidies up your medication list to keep only the ones truly required.

older couple sit at table looking at medications
Deprescribing is the process of stopping or stepping down medications that are no longer needed.
Shutterstock

But care is needed

The process of deprescribing requires close monitoring and, for many medications, slow reductions in dose (tapering).

This helps the body adjust gradually and can prevent sudden, unpleasant changes. Deprescribing is often done on a trial basis and medication can be restarted if symptoms come back. Alternatively, a safer medication, or non-drug treatment may be started in its place.

Studies show deprescribing is a safe process when managed by a healthcare professional, both for people living at home and those in residential aged care. You should always talk with your care team before stopping any medications.

Deprescribing needs to be a team effort involving the person, their healthcare team and possibly family or other carers. Shared decision-making throughout the process empowers the person taking medications to have a say in their healthcare. The team can work together to clarify treatment goals and decide which medications are still serving the person well and which can be safely discontinued.

If you or a loved one take multiple medications, you might be eligible for a free visit from a pharmacist (a Home Medicines Review) to help you get the best out of your medications.

What’s next?

Healthcare has traditionally focused on prescribing medications, with little focus on when to stop them. Deprescribing is not happening as often as it should. Researchers are working hard to develop tools, resources and service models to support deprescribing in the community.

Healthcare professionals may think older adults are not open to deprescribing, but about eight out of 10 people are willing to stop one or more of their medications. That said, of course some people may have concerns. If you have been taking a medication for a long time, you might wonder why you should stop or whether your health could get worse if you do. These are important questions to ask a doctor or pharmacist.

We need more public awareness about polypharmacy and deprescribing to turn the tide of increasing medication use and related harms.

Emily Reeve, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Medicine Use and Safety , Monash University; Jacinta L Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Pharmacy Practice, University of South Australia; Janet Sluggett, Enterprise Fellow, University of South Australia, and Kate O’Hara, PhD student, Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Do you take more than five different medications per day? How long have you been taking them? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: The surprising link between common medication and dementia risk

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