Applied Evidence

Strategies to reduce and prevent polypharmacy in older patients

School of Pharmacy, University of Wyoming, Laramie
[email protected]

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

Deprescribing can be accomplished by using tested tools, good judgment, and a team approach.


› Use one of the available tested and recommended screening tools to identify polypharmacy. C

› Engage in collaborative medication review to reduce the incidence of polypharmacy. C

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




Ronald Wa is a 74-year old man with an extensive medical history: diabetes, hypertension, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, pancreatitis, hyperlipidemia, gout, depression, generalized anxiety, obstructive sleep apnea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy. He arrives at the emergency department (ED) of the hospital by nonemergent ambulance from home for evaluation of lethargy and confusion over the past week.

In the ED, Mr. W is afebrile, normotensive, and oxygenating on room air. Mucous membranes are dry. On physical examination, he appears pale, fatigued, and modestly confused but is able to state his name and birthday, although not the location or date.

Laboratory testing reveals: blood glucose, 107 mg/dL; serum creatinine, 2.3 mg/dL; sodium, 127 mEq/L; and hemoglobin level and hematocrit, within normal limits. Urinalysis is negative. Renal ultrasonography is unremarkable, without evidence of urinary tract obstruction.

Mr. W is admitted to the general medical unit with hyponatremia. The pharmacy admission specialist begins reconciliation of the long list of the patient’s home medications.

Overprescribing: Often, more is not better

Some experts consider prescribing medication to be the most common form of medical intervention; beyond that, polypharmacy—often defined as the use of more medications than are medically necessary (see the next section on terminology)—is recognized as an increasingly serious problem in many medical specialties.1 Here are specifics about the extent of, and harm caused by, the problem2,3:

  • The US General Accounting Office reports that inappropriate polypharmacy is associated with significant morbidity and mortality.2 Research has established a strong relationship between polypharmacy and harmful clinical consequences,3 to which the older patient population is most susceptible.
  • Polypharmacy is also recognized as an expensive practice; the US Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that polypharmacy cost US health insurers more than $50 billion annually.2
  • Worldwide, with more and more people older than 65 years, polypharmacy is becoming more prevalent, and a growing concern, in older adults; approximately 50% of them take ≥ 1 medications that are medically unnecessary.3

Despite many programs to help with deprescribing, drug–drug interactions and the so-called prescribing cascade (ie, when signs and symptoms of an adverse drug effect are misdiagnosed as a new medical condition) continue to affect patients, leading to comorbidities. It is important, therefore, for physicians to be aware of commonly used tools to prevent polypharmacy and its consequences.

What is “polypharmacy” understood to mean?

Despite the compelling association of polypharmacy with the presence of multiple morbidities in the older patient population, there is no consensus on its definition:

  • Starting with the dictionary, “polypharmacy” derives from 2 words in Ancient Greek: poly, “more than one,” and “pharmakon, “drug.”3
  • The definition can vary based on the number of drugs a patient has been prescribed, their safety, and the appropriateness of their use.1
  • Another definition is the use of more medications than are medically necessary; such a grouping includes agents that are not indicated, are ineffective, or constitute a therapeutic duplication. Although this definition is more clinically relevant than the others, it is premised on undertaking a clinical review of a medication regimen.3
  • A numerical definition is the most commonly reported category, a number that varies from study to study—from ≥ 2 to ≥ 11 medications. When applied to health care settings, accepted definitions are ≥ 5 medications at hospital discharge and ≥ 10 during a hospital stay.4 Numerical definitions of polypharmacy do not ascertain the clinical appropriateness of therapy nor the process of rationalizing those medications.1

aA composite, hypothetical patient, based on the authors' clinical experience.

Continue to: Appropriateness


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