Applied Evidence

Strategies to reduce and prevent polypharmacy in older patients

School of Pharmacy, University of Wyoming, Laramie

The authors reported no potential conflict of interest relevant to this article.




Polypharmacy is classified as appropriate or inappropriate:

  • Appropriate polypharmacy is the optimization of medications for patients with complex or multiple conditions, when the use of medicine is in agreement with best evidence.
  • Inappropriate polypharmacy can increase the risk of adverse drug effects and drug–drug interactions and can be characterized by medication underuse and duplication.4

There are subdefinitions of “appropriateness,” but these are beyond the scope of this article.

What variables contribute to polypharmacy?

Polypharmacy is not only medically unnecessary; it also causes significant morbidity and mortality and is expensive.

Multimorbidity is common in the older population. The presence of multiple chronic conditions increases the complexity of therapeutic management for health professionals and patients; such complexity can have a harmful impact on health outcomes. Combinations of medications to treat chronic diseases automatically push many patients into polypharmacy. Few treatment guidelines provide recommendations on when to stop medications.

Consequences of polypharmacy, some of which are masked as syndromes in the older patient, include delirium and dementia, urinary incontinence, dizziness, falls, adverse drug reactions, increased length of hospital stay, readmission soon after discharge, and death.3-5 Relatively high rates of drug consumption and other variables (eg, decreased renal and hepatic function, decreased total body water and lean body mass, cognitive impairment, age-related decline in vision and hearing, frequency of chronic diseases and medical comorbidities, communication barriers, prescribing cascades, and health care delivery involving multiple prescribers) can contribute to an increased prevalence of medication-associated morbidity and mortality as the result of polypharmacy.

In a descriptive study6 that examined these variables, researchers explored whether general practitioners experience barriers to medication review in multimorbid patients with polypharmacy. They concluded that the primary barriers were (1) lack of communication and teamwork with specialists and (2) the challenge of handling polypharmacy in a culture that encourages adding medications and inhibits conversations about medication withdrawal.6

Continue to: Reducing consequences of polypharmacy

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