The Dangers of Polypharmacy

Dangers of Polypharmacy

Polypharmacy is a term used to indicate that someone is taking multiple medications at once and it’s a phenomenon that is far more common than you might think. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly half of all Americans over the age of 12 take prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, sedatives or stimulants.

This equates to nearly 119 million Americans or around 45 percent of the total population. Even more worryingly, the survey found that nearly 16 percent of people misuse the drugs that they have been prescribed.

Deaths related to prescription drugs now kill more people in the US than cars and guns combined, and polypharmacy is a leading cause of accidental death, so if you are planning a career as a pharmacy technician, it’s worth taking generating a deep understanding of the risks of polypharmacy, so you have some statistics, discretion, and advice to offer your customers.

The Elderly Are Most at Risk

Senior citizens are one of the larger groups who fall victim to problems arising from polypharmacy. An elderly patient may be seeing more than one specialist who renews prescriptions, meaning their daily medication intake can stack up quickly.

Harvard researchers reported that 39 percent of those over age 65 from 1999–2012 now use five or more medications, which is a 70 percent increase in polypharmacy over a 12 year period.

Vitamins, dietary supplements, and herbal remedies can also play a part in compounding the dangers of polypharmacy. Supplements rarely include a list of potentially dangerous interactions with prescription medication, often because those effects are unknown, and can combine with other medications over time to become poisonous.

Poor Communication Increases the Risk

A wide range of factors, from a lack of understanding, poor communications skills, poor English language skills, a lack of medical understanding, and impaired cognitive function can lead to patients, especially elderly ones, not be communicating all the medications they are taking to their healthcare provider.

If their doctor doesn’t ask about specific medications and clarify to the patient that they should also report what vitamins and dietary supplements they are taking, there’s a risk that dangerous complications and interactions could occur between their prescription medications and the other things the patient may be taking on a regular basis.

As a pharmacy professional, it is vital that you’re communicating possible side effects and dangerous interactions to patients. You can also request a so-called “brown bag review”, or an evaluation of all the prescription medicines and substances a person, is taking if you spot some strange combinations being prescribed by multiple physicians.

The Drug Overuse Is Very Dangerous

It might be stating the obvious, but combining a large number of prescription drugs is dubious at best and could become deadly if the risks aren’t properly evaluated and discussed.

A recent article in the New York Times reported that doctors have raised concerns about the lack of regulation and evidence of the effectiveness of fish oil capsules because, despite most users believing that supplements like fish oil help their hearts, it can cause potentially deadly bleeding in patients who take blood thinners like Warfarin.

Polypharmacy Has a Cost

The overall cost of prescription drugs in the United States is projected to have risen to $457 billion in 2015, and those costs are projected to continue to climb over the next few years, according to research by the Reuters Group.

The prevalent use of prescription medicine is becoming increasingly expensive for both users and the government, while the consolidation of the pharmacology sector in the US has seen prices for non-negotiable prescription drugs skyrocket over the last decade.

It’s Possible to Avoid Over-prescribing

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that nearly half of all outpatient antibiotic prescriptions in the United States were entirely unnecessary.

Doctors, physicians and those in pharmaceutical careers, who are educated on the dangers of polypharmacy and over-prescription have a responsibility to tackle the problem and educate patients on the dangers of combining prescription medications with seemingly harmless supplements.

Start Your New Career As A Pharmacy Technician Now!

Northwest Career College is one of the premier pharmacy technician schools in Las Vegas, and our course provides our students with the skills and training they need to take advantage of the growing need for pharmacy technicians. Our experienced instructors offer online and on-campus classes to accommodate your Las Vegas work and family schedule. Once you’ve graduated, we continue to support you and the commitment of our Career Services Team has led to us having a 100% job placement rate for our pharmacy technician graduates. Call us today at (702) 403-1592 to speak to one of our enrollment specialists.


Written by:

Booker Chatman, CPhT
Pharmacy Technician Program Chair
A.A. College of Southern Nevada