Applied Evidence

Deprescribing: A simple method for reducing polypharmacy

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


Starting the deprescribing process: Several approaches to choose from

The goal of deprescribing is to reduce polypharmacy and improve health outcomes. It is a process defined as, “reviewing all current medications; identifying medications to be ceased, substituted, or reduced; planning a deprescribing regimen in partnership with the patient; and frequently reviewing and supporting the patient.”22 A medication review should include prescription, over-the-counter (OTC), and complementary/­alternative medicine (CAM) agents.

Tools to identify polypharmacy and assist with appropirate medication use image

More than one-third of US men and women ages 62 to 85 years are taking 5 or more prescription medications.Until recently, studies evaluating the process of deprescribing across drug classes and disease conditions were limited, but new research is beginning to show its potential impact. After deprescribing, patients experience fewer falls and show improvements in cognition.23 While there have not yet been large randomized trials to evaluate deprescribing, a recent systematic review and meta-analysis showed that use of patient-specific deprescribing interventions is associated with improved survival.24 Importantly, there have been no reported adverse drug withdrawal events or deaths associated with deprescribing.23

Where to start: Which drugs to deprescribe image

Smaller studies have reported additional benefits including decreases in health care costs, reductions in drug-drug interactions and PIMs, improvements in medication adherence, and increases in patient satisfaction.25 In addition, the removal of unnecessary medications may allow for increased consideration of prescribing appropriate medications with known benefit.25

Practically speaking, every encounter between a patient and health care provider is an opportunity to reduce unnecessary medications. Electronic alert systems at pharmacies and those embedded within electronic health record (EHR) systems can also prompt a medication review and an effort to deprescribe.26 Evidence-based tools to identify polypharm­acy and guide appropriate medication use are listed in TABLE 3.5,6,27-30 In addition, suggested approaches to beginning the deprescribing process are included in TABLE 4.5,31-33 And a medication class-based approach to deprescribing is provided in TABLE 5.5,34-45

Deprescribing considerations by medication class image

Although no gold standard process exists for deprescribing, experts suggest that any deprescribing protocol should include the following steps:32,46

1. Start with a “brown bag” review of the patient’s medications.

Have the patient bring all of his/her medications in a bag to the visit; review them together or have the medication history taken by a pharmacist. Determine and discuss the indication for each medication and its effectiveness for that indication. Consider the potential benefits and harms of each medication in the context of the patient’s care goals and preferences. Assess whether the patient is taking all of the medications that have been prescribed, and identify any reasons for missed pills (eg, adverse effects, dosing regimens, understanding, cognitive issues).

2. Talk to the patient about the deprescribing process.

Talk with the patient about the risks and benefits of deprescribing, and prioritize which medications to address in the process. Prioritize the medications by balancing patient preferences with available pharmacologic evidence. If there is a lack of evidence supporting the benefits for a particular medication, consider known or suspected adverse effects, the ease or burden of the dosing regimen, the patient’s preferences and goals of care, remaining life expectancy, the time until drug benefit is appreciated, and the length of drug benefit after discontinuation.

3. Deprescribe medications.

If you are going to taper a medication, develop a schedule in partnership with the patient. Stop one medication at a time so that you can monitor for withdrawal symptoms or for the return of a condition.

Acknowledging potential barriers to deprescribing may help structure conversations and provide anticipatory guidance to patients and their families. Working to overcome these barriers will help maximize the benefits of deprescribing and help to build trust with patients.

Patient-driven barriers include fear of a condition worsening or returning, lack of a suitable alternative, lack of ongoing support to manage a particular condition, a previous bad experience with medication cessation, and influence from other care providers (eg, family, home caregivers, nurses, specialists, friends). Patients and family members sometimes cling to the hope of future effectiveness of a treatment, especially in the case of medications like donepezil for dementia.47 Utilizing a team-based and stepwise patient approach to deprescribing aims to provide hesitant patients with appropriate amounts of education and support to begin to reduce unnecessary medicines.

Provider-driven barriers include feeling uneasy about contradicting a specialist’s recommendations for initiation/continuation of specific medications, fear of causing withdrawal symptoms or disease relapse, and lack of specific data to adequately understand and assess benefits and harms in the older adult population. Primary care physicians have also acknowledged worry about discussing life expectancy and that patients will feel their care is being reduced or “downgraded.”48 Finally, there is limited time in which these complex shared decision-making conversations can take place. Thus, if medications are not causing a noticeable problem, it is often easier to just continue them.

Every encounter between a patient and health care provider is an opportunity to reduce unnecessary medications.

One way to overcome some of these concerns is to consider working with a clinical pharmacist. By gaining information regarding medication-specific factors, such as half-life and expected withdrawal patterns, you can feel more confident deprescribing or continuing medications.

Additionally, communicating closely with specialists, ideally with the help of an integra­ted EHR, can allow you to discuss indications for particular medications or concerns about adverse effects, limited benefits, or difficulty with compliance, so that you can develop a collaborative, cohesive, and patient-centered plan. This, in turn, may improve patient understanding and compliance.

4. Create a follow-up plan.

At the time of deprescribing a medication, develop a plan with the patient for monitoring and assessment. Ensure that the patient understands which symptoms may occur in the event of drug withdrawal and which symptoms may suggest the return of a condition. Make sure that other supports are in place if needed (eg, cognitive behavioral therapy, physical therapy, social support or assistance) to help ensure that medication cessation is successful.

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