Rewriting the script on polypharmacy



Drugs are valuable when they effectively relieve symptoms or prevent illness, but we all know they are double-edged swords when it comes to cost, adverse effects, and drug interactions. This “downside” is not lost on older Americans—especially when you consider that more than a third of Americans, ages 62 to 85 years, take 5 or more prescription medications daily.1

Too often patients take prescription drugs that they either don’t need or that are harming them. That’s where deprescribing comes in. As this month’s feature article by McGrath and colleagues explains, deprescribing is the process of reducing or stopping unnecessary prescription medications.

The power of deprescribing. About a decade ago, a geriatrician/family physician friend of mine took over as medical director of a 160-bed nursing home. He lamented that the average number of prescription medications taken by the patients in the nursing home was 9.5. He and his team went to work deprescribing, and one year later, the average number of prescription medications per patient was 5.3. As far as he and the nursing staff could tell, the patients were doing just fine and were more alert and functional.

With a blood pressure consistently around 105/50 mm Hg, it was an easy decision to stop one of the patient’s 3 antihypertensive medications.

Another specialist, another Rx. In clinic, I saw a 54-year-old woman with the chief complaint of chronic, dry cough for which she had been on a specialist pilgrimage. A GI specialist prescribed omeprazole, an ENT physician prescribed fluticasone nasal spray and cetirizine, and a pulmonologist added an inhaled corticosteroid to the mix. (I’m not making this up!) I reviewed her medication list carefully and noted she had been placed on amitriptyline for insomnia shortly before the cough began. I was suspicious because the properties of anticholinergics can contribute to a cough. At my suggestion, she agreed to stop the amitriptyline (and endure some sleeplessness). Two weeks later, she returned with no cough. Over the next month, she stopped all 4 other medications, and the cough did not return.

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