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Older adults at risk from inappropriate prescribing


Roughly 2% of prescriptions to older patients appear to be inappropriate – but the figure does not appear to differ between physicians and nurse practitioners, according to a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Older adults are “especially vulnerable to adverse drug events from inappropriate prescribing due to comorbidities and aging-related physiological changes,” said Johnny Huynh, MA, doctoral candidate in economics at UCLA and lead author of the study. “Considering the volume of prescriptions for older adults, even a small percentage can translate to a big impact on adverse drug events and spending.”

In recent years, more states have granted prescriptive authority to NPs, while professional medical organizations have opposed the reforms and made claims about differences in quality of care.

The medical community must focus on the prescribing performance of individual clinicians rather than whether an NP has prescriptive authority, said David Studdert, LLB, ScD, MPH, professor of health policy at Stanford (Calif.) University and a co-author of the study.

“Don’t fixate on whether nurse practitioners have prescriptive authority or don’t,” said Mr. Studdert. “Just try to identify those practitioners who need to boost their performance.”

The investigators found that rates of potentially inappropriate prescribing were “virtually identical.” Adjusted rates were 1.66 per 100 prescriptions for NPs versus 1.68 per 100 prescriptions for physicians (adjusted odds ratio, 0.99; 95% confidence interval, 0.97-1.01).

“Older adults often have more than one chronic condition and are prescribed multiple medications to manage these conditions, putting them at risk for adverse events,” said Paula Rochon, MD, MPH, founding director of the Women’s Age Lab and professor in the Division of Geriatric Medicine at Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto. “Furthermore, older women are more likely than men to have multiple medical problems and experience adverse drug events.”

Dr. Rochon led a 2021 research review on polypharmacy and inappropriate prescribing among older adults in both the United States and abroad. She and her team noted that while women are physiologically more susceptible to drug-related harm, rates of inappropriate prescribing also tend to be higher for women, such as in the case of senior U.S. veterans and older adults in Canada.

The researchers analyzed data over a 7-year period starting in 2013 from 23,669 primary care NPs and 50,060 physicians who wrote prescriptions for at least 100 patients with Medicare Part D coverage. Data from 29 states, which had all expanded prescriptive authority to NPs, was included.

Prescriptive quality was defined by the American Geriatrics Society’s Beers Criteria, a list of potentially inappropriate medications (PIMs) for adults ages 65 and over. Mr. Studdert said it’s important to note the nuance in the Beers Criteria.

“It’s not to say that there may not be certain clinical circumstances where it’s appropriate to” prescribe these drugs, Mr. Studdert said, “But generally, it’s not appropriate.”

Ten medications accounted for 99.5% of the PIMs prescribed, including drugs that were antidepressants, muscle relaxants, hypnotics, antihistamines (generation 1), antispasmodics, sulfonylureas, barbiturates, antineoplastics, thyroid medications, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

The top three most frequently potentially inappropriately prescribed were antidepressants (0.393 NPs vs. 0.481 PCPs per 100 prescriptions), muscle relaxants (0.372 NPs vs. 0.305 PCPs per 100), and hypnotics (0.364 NPs vs. 0.440 PCPs per 100). Both antidepressants and hypnotics are associated with an increased risk for falls and fractures among older adults, while muscle relaxants have been shown to increase the risk for hospitalization in this population.

Despite the overall similar PIM rates, NPs were more present in the “tails,” or highest and lowest end of the quality bell curve. The higher variation among NPs means these patients are at a higher risk of receiving a prescription for an inappropriate medication, said David Chan, MD, PhD, associate professor of health policy at Stanford (Calif.) School of Medicine, and a co-author of the study.

Other studies have shown “high-intensity prescribers” were more likely to dispense drugs like benzodiazepines and opioids, which can be harmful to older patients.

According to Dr. Rochon, clinicians should use the Beers Criteria and STOPP/START Criteria to guide decision-making, along with the DRUGS framework, which follows a geriatric medicine approach that advises clinicians to discuss goals of care with their patients and conduct routine reviews of medications.

Prescribers should also avoid prescribing cascades, which “occur when a drug is prescribed, an adverse event occurs that is misinterpreted as a new medical condition, and a further drug is prescribed to treat that medical condition,” Dr. Rochon said.

To reduce cascades, “it’s important to document when a medication was started, why it was started, and who started it so that this information is available when evaluating if a medication continues to be needed,” she said.

The study was funded by grants from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Science Foundation. The authors report no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on

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