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Polypharmacy & Seniors

How Many Medications Is Too Many?

In our LinkedIn poll last week, we asked the question, “Do you feel like you’re taking too many medications?”. 40% answered “Yes” and an additional 20% answered “Maybe- I’d like to find out”. This is an accurate representation of the current US healthcare system. The majority of people either know they are taking too many medications or are interested in finding out if they are.

What constitutes “too many”? Generally speaking, taking five or more medications at the same time is too many medications, and is defined as polypharmacy. Polypharmacy can also be interpreted as taking a medication solely to combat side effects of another, or the use of excessive and clinically unnecessary medications. Regardless of if you are taking more than five medications, you may still be a victim of polypharmacy.

Polypharmacy often affects people age 65 and older because of their likelihood of having multiple chronic conditions at the same time. For example, a person may be suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and also have diabetes. In this instance, it is common for this person to be taking a variety of medications to combat their ailments. There’s nothing wrong with taking medications, but polypharmacy can begin to rear its head when multiple prescriptions are involved.

Two factors contribute significantly to polypharmacy: The number of medications taken and the number of prescribers involved in care.

  1. Number of Medications: Risks increase as more medications are added on, the most significant being drug interactions. An interaction occurs when one medicine affects how another medicine works. When taken together, medications may make another stronger or weaker, leading to undesired outcomes. Medications can also interact with certain foods and drinks, a daily part of life. Some interactions can be serious, even life-threatening. There are thousands of medications on the market, and it can be difficult for providers to know which drugs interact negatively. This is not the providers’ fault, they are simply overrun and resource-starved. This brings us to number 2.

  2. Number of Prescribers: It is common for many older Americans to see multiple providers for different ailments, often prescribing new medications or changing doses, which only increases the complexity of an already-challenging situation. Additionally, because the healthcare system is so overwhelmed, it is becoming increasingly common for providers to skip or forget crucial details about medications. Your provider may ask which prescriptions you are taking, but they may forget to ask dosage or if you are taking any over-the-counter medications or supplements. Or they may simply forget to ask if you were prescribed any medications by another provider. These details can be the difference between purposeful medicating and polypharmacy. Again, the provider is not to blame here - they are overworked and doing the best they can. However, this is a significant issue that will continue to increase as healthcare workers become more overwhelmed.

Combatting the potential risks of polypharmacy may seem like an impossible task, but it is actually quite easy for a patient advocate. We are able to bridge the communication gap between multiple providers, prescribers, and facilities. Because seniors are more likely to have multiple prescriptions and providers than other age groups, patient advocates are all the more valuable.

Are you worried about how many medications you’re taking? Hope Health Advocacy can help. Founder Michele Mosier, PharmD. has over twenty years of experience as a pharmacist and understands all of the intricacies involved in polypharmacy. Learn more about how we work to combat polypharmacy risks here or book a discovery call to get started right away.


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