Applied Evidence

Deprescribing: A simple method for reducing polypharmacy

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Polypharmacy brings with it increased risks for adverse drug events and reduced functional capacity. This 4-step plan will help you safely deprescribe in older adults.


› Avoid medications that are inappropriate for older adults because of adverse effects, lack of efficacy, and/or potential for interactions. A

› Discontinue medications when the harms outweigh the benefits in the context of the patient’s care goals, life expectancy, and/or preferences. C

› Utilize resources such as the STOPP/START and Beers criteria to help you decide where to begin the deprescribing process. B

Strength of recommendation (SOR)

A Good-quality patient-oriented evidence
B Inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence
C Consensus, usual practice, opinion, disease-oriented evidence, case series


From The Journal of Family Practice | 2017;66(7):436-445.


CASE An 82-year-old woman with a history of hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, stage 3 chronic kidney disease, anxiety, urge urinary incontinence, constipation, and bilateral knee osteoarthritis presents to her primary care physician’s office after a fall. She reports that she visited the emergency department (ED) a week ago after falling in the middle of the night on her way to the bathroom. This is the third fall she’s had this year. On chart review, she had a blood pressure (BP) of 112/60 mm Hg and a blood glucose level of 65 mg/dL in the ED. All other testing (head imaging, chest x-ray, urinalysis) was normal. The ED physician recommended that she stop taking her lisinopril-hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) and glipizide extended release (XL) until her follow-up appointment. Today, she asks about the need to restart these medications.

Polypharmacy is common among older adults due to a high prevalence of chronic conditions that often require multiple medications for optimal management. Cut points of 5 or 9 medications are frequently used to define polypharmacy. However, some define polypharmacy as taking a medication that lacks an indication, is ineffective, or is duplicating treatment provided by another medication.

Watch for these drug-disease interactions image

Either way, polypharmacy is associated with multiple negative consequences, including an increased risk for adverse drug events (ADEs),1-4 drug-drug and drug-disease interactions (TABLE 15,6),7 reduced functional capacity,8 multiple geriatric syndromes (TABLE 25,9-12), medication non-adherence,13 and increased mortality.14 Polypharmacy also contributes to increased health care costs for both the patient and the health care system.15

Geriatric syndromes associated with polypharmacy image

Taking a step back. Polypharmacy often results from prescribing cascades, which occur when an adverse drug effect is misinterpreted as a new medical problem, leading to the prescribing of more medication to treat the initial drug-induced symptom. Potentially inappropriate medications (PIMs), which are medications that should be avoided in older adults and in those with certain conditions, are also more likely to be prescribed in the setting of polypharmacy.16

Deprescribing is the process of identifying and discontinuing medications that are unnecessary, ineffective, and/or inappropriate in order to reduce polypharmacy and improve health outcomes. Deprescribing is a collaborative process that involves weighing the benefits and harms of medications in the context of a patient’s care goals, current level of functioning, life expectancy, values, and preferences. This article reviews polypharmacy and discusses safe and effective deprescribing strategies for older adults in the primary care setting.

How many people on how many meds?

Polypharmacy often occurs when an adverse drug effect is misinterpreted as a new medical problem, leading to the prescribing of more medication to treat the initial drug-induced symptom.According to a 2016 study, 36% of community-dwelling older adults (ages 62-85 years) were taking 5 or more prescription medications in 2010 to 2011—up from 31% in 2005 to 2006.17 When one narrows the population to older adults in the United States who are hospitalized, almost half (46%) take 7 or more medications.18 Among frail, older US veterans at hospital discharge, 40% were prescribed 9 or more medications, with 44% of these patients receiving at least one unnecessary drug.19

The challenges of multimorbidity

In the United States, 80% of those 65 and older have 2 or more chronic conditions, or multimorbidity.20 Clinical practice guidelines making recommendations for the management of single conditions, such as heart failure, hypertension, or diabetes, often suggest the use of 2 or more medications to achieve optimal management and fail to provide guidance in the setting of multimorbidity. Following treatment recommendations for multiple conditions predictably leads to polypharmacy, with complicated, costly, and burdensome regimens.

Further, the research contributing to the development of clinical practice guidelines frequently excludes older adults and those with multimorbidity, reducing applicability in this population. As a result, many treatment recommendations have uncertain benefit and may be harmful in the multimorbid older patient.21

CASE In addition to the patient’s multimorbidity, she had a stroke at age 73 and has some mild residual left-sided weakness. Functionally, she is independent and able to perform her activities of daily living and her instrumental activities of daily living. She lives alone, quit smoking at age 65, and has an occasional glass of wine during family parties. The patient’s daughter and granddaughter live 2 blocks away.

The goal of deprescribing is to reduce polypharmacy and improve health outcomes.

Her current medications include glipizide XL 10 mg/d and lisinopril-HCTZ 20-25 mg/d, which she has temporarily discontinued at the ED doctor’s recommendation, as well as: amlodipine 10 mg/d, metformin 1000 mg BID, senna 8.6 mg/d, docusate 100 mg BID, furosemide 40 mg/d, and ibuprofen 600 mg/d (for knee pain). She reports taking omeprazole 20 mg/d “for almost 20 years,” even though she has not had any reflux symptoms in recent memory. After her stroke, she began taking atorvastatin 10 mg/d, aspirin 81 mg/d, and clopidogrel 75 mg/d, which she continues to take today. About a year ago, she started oxybutynin 5 mg/d for urinary incontinence, but she has not noticed significant relief. Additionally, she takes lorazepam 1 mg for insomnia most nights of the week.

Deprescribing: A simple method for reducing polypharmacy image IMAGE: ©BRIAN STAUFER 2017

A review of systems reveals issues with chronic constipation and intermittent dizziness, but is otherwise negative. The physical examination reveals a well-appearing woman with a body mass index of 26. Her temperature is 98.5° F, her heart rate is 78 beats/min and regular, her respirations are 14 breaths/min, and her BP is 117/65 mm Hg. Orthostatic testing is negative. Her heart, lung, and abdominal exams are within normal limits. Her timed up and go test is 14 seconds. Her blood glucose level today in the office after eating breakfast 2 hours ago is 135 mg/dL (normal: <140 mg/dL). Laboratory tests performed at the time of the ED visit show a creatinine level of 1.2 mg/dL (normal range: 0.6 to 1.1 mg/dL), a glomerular filtration rate (GFR) of 44 units (normal range: >60 units), a hemoglobin level of 9.8 g/dL (normal range: 12-15.5 g/dL), and a thyroid stimulating hormone level of 1.4 mIU/L (normal range: 0.5-8.9 mIU/L). A recent hemoglobin A1C is 6.8% (normal: <5.7%), low-density lipoprotein (LDL) level is 103 mg/dL (optimal <100 mg/dL), and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) level is 65 mg/dL (optimal >60 mg/dL). An echocardiogram performed a year ago showed mild aortic stenosis with normal systolic and diastolic function.


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