Polypharmacy in the Elderly: How to Reduce Adverse Drug Events

Author and Disclosure Information



Medication reconciliation

Medication reconciliation—in which health care providers review a patient’s medication list at hospital admission and discharge, and even at routine office visits—is an increasingly common practice, especially with the implementation of EMRs. The patient’s prescribed and OTC medications, as well as dose, route, frequency, and indication, are updated, with the goal of maintaining the most accurate list. Health care providers can utilize both the Beers Criteria and the STOPP/START criteria in their reconciliation process to help reduce polypharmacy in the elderly. It is an essential step in maintaining communication between providers and ultimately decreasing the incidence of ADEs.17

IMPROVE … continuity of care

Polypharmacy can decrease patient likelihood to adhere to the regimen, whether due to confusion or intolerance.8 Patients should be included, along with caregivers and all medical providers, in a holistic assessment of the patient’s best interests in terms of long-term care and pharmacologic treatment, since those who have a sense of control in their treatment goals and expectations often achieve a better understanding of their medical status.10

However, educating patients about their medications is time-consuming, and time is often at a premium during a typical office visit. A pilot study of 28 male veterans (ages 85 and older)—the Integrated Management and Polypharmacy Review of Vulnerable Elders (IMPROVE) project—devised a model to combat this problem.21 As an adjunct to a visit with the PCP, a clinical pharmacist trained in patient education and medication management performed face-to-face clinical consults with patients and their caregivers. The results indicated that medical management by both the PCP and the pharmacist resulted in better medication management. The pharmacist was able to spend time with the patient and caregiver, resulting in individualized instructions, education, and strategies for safe and effective medication use. The PCP remained involved by cosigning the note with the pharmacist and was available for consultation, if needed.

In IMPROVE, 79% of patients had at least one medication discontinued and 75% had one or more dosing or timing adjustments made. Potentially inappropriate medications were reduced by 14%.21 When the researchers compared the six-month period before the trial with the six-month period afterward, they found an average pharmacy cost savings of $64 per veteran per month. There was also a decreasing trend in phone calls and visits to the PCP. Cost savings were comparable to or greater than those reported for similar interventions.21 There has not been sufficient long-term follow-up to assess this method’s effects on ADEs, morbidity, and mortality, however.


Managing medications in the elderly population is difficult, and polypharmacy is common due to the prevalence of patients with comorbidities. It is important for providers to be aware of possible drug interactions, prescribing cascades, and ADEs. Medications such as anticholinergics and antipsychotics pose an increased risk for ADEs, but the regular implementation of criteria such as Beers or STOPP/START in clinical practice will minimize overprescribing and improve health outcomes. These criteria should be used to supplement the clinical judgment and expertise of providers as a mainstay of patient care in the elderly.

Next Article: