About 110 million prescription items handed out every year “need not have been issued”, according to new estimates.
A UK government-commissioned review into the overprescribing of medicines – where people are given medicines they do not need or want, or which may harm them – concluded it was a “serious problem” in health systems around the world.
The report said the National Health Service had curbed a rise in overprescribing in the England but the problem remained at “unacceptable levels”.
The review was led by Dr Keith Ridge, the chief pharmaceutical officer for England.
He estimated that 10 per cent of the total number of prescription items issued by general practitioners [family doctors] “need not have been issued”.
With 1.1 billion prescription items dispensed in the community in England in 2020/21, this suggests that as many as 110 million could have been “overprescribed”.
The authors said they did not want to set a target for reducing overprescribing, but that a 10 per cent reduction was “realistic”.
“This would be equivalent to a reduction of around 110 million items a year,” the review also said.
The elderly, those with disabilities and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are “disproportionately affected”, the review states.
About 15 per cent of people in England take five or more medicines a day, with 7 per cent on eight or more.
The review authors said overprescribing can adversely affect these people if different medicines interact negatively with one another.
About 6.5 per cent of hospital admissions are caused by the adverse effects of medicines, rising to 20 per cent of hospital admissions among people over the age of 65.
The authors said repeat prescriptions made up about three quarters of all prescription items and could be offered without review for long periods, increasing the risk of overprescribing.
The review made a series of recommendations, including:
– systemic changes to improve patient records, transfers of care and clinical guidance to support more patient-centred care;
– culture change to reduce the reliance on medicines and support shared decision-making;
– a new national clinical director for prescribing to lead reform.
Government ministers have pledged to crack down overprescribing, which is defined as the use of a medicine where there is a better non-medicine alternative, or the use is inappropriate for that patients’ circumstances and wishes.
The Department of Health and Social Care said all of the recommendations had been accepted.
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “This is an incredibly important review which will have a lasting impact on people’s lives and improve the way medicines are prescribed.
“With 15 per cent of people taking five or more medicines a day, in some cases to deal with the side effects of another medicine, more needs to be done to listen to patients and help clinical teams tackle overprescribing.
“I look forward to working with Dr Keith Ridge and our dedicated NHS teams to deliver on these recommendations.”
Dr Ridge said: “Medicines do people a lot of good and the practical measures set out in this report will help clinicians ensure people are getting the right type and amount of medication, which is better for patients and also benefits taxpayers, by preventing unnecessary spending on prescriptions.
“Continuing to tackle overprescribing requires a whole-system approach involving clinicians and patients, so we can continue to build the change we all wish to see in how medicines are used for the benefit of patients, and with medicines production and use a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions – contributing to the NHS’s net zero ambition.”