Are older Americans overmedicating?

According to a 2014 action plan by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, older adults account for about 35 percent of all hospital stays but more than half of the visits that are caused by drug-related complications. Those figures highlight what many senior care experts categorize as polypharmacy – older Americans taking dozens of different medications that cannot often cause serious interactions that often lead to doctors prescribing even more medications, known as a prescription cascade.


For example, a blood pressure medication could lead to swollen ankles and the treating physician may prescribe a diuretic to help alleviate the condition. The diuretic could then lead to a potassium deficiency that needs its own prescription which may cause nausea and the treatment for nausea may cause confusion and add another prescription to the mix.


The  Scenarios like these are all too common occurrences at hospitals across the country where doctors fail to communicate with each other or examine the full list of prescription medications that the patient is on. One of the biggest dangers to taking to many medications is the increased risk of fall and other serious side effects that can lead to an emergency room visit or a catastrophic injury.


A 2006 report by the Institute of Medicine estimates there were 400,000 preventable adverse medical events in our nation’s hospitals related to prescription drugs. The organization believes such outcomes may drive up the cost of healthcare by $3.5 billion each year. Even when drugs do not result in an injury, they may be totally unnecessary for the patient.


Studies from the Veterans Administration from 2005 found that 44 percent of almost 400-frail, elderly patients were on at least one unnecessary medication by the time the patient was discharged from the hospital. A 2013 study by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found nearly one-fifth of patients discharged suffered prescription-related medical complications within 45-days of being home and about 35 percent of those complications were preventable, and 5 percent were life-threatening.


Statistics concerning the use of antipsychotic drugs are even more alarming. An April 2017 study by the University of Michigan found the percentage of people older than 65 taking at least three psychiatric drugs more than doubled in the previous decade. Half of those taking the extremely powerful drugs used to treat conditions like schizophrenia had no mental health diagnosis.


While patients should never stop taking their medications without a doctor’s order, the studies show an alarming trend in American medicine where doctors are inclined to prescribe drugs and quickly treat symptoms. Hopefully, concerned doctors and activists can help find a solution to balance patient health and safety while possibly driving down healthcare costs at the same time.

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