Polypharmacy is commonly defined in one of two ways. Either it is the simultaneous use of multiple medications to treat a single condition or it is the simultaneous use of multiple medications for multiple conditions. These definitions aren’t mutually exclusive, however, as many individuals might fit into both categories. One person who takes five medications to control two ailments, for example, clearly fits into both descriptions. One group that polypharmacy most describes, however, are the elderly.

While not inherently negative, the term polypharmacy carries a certain stigma and is often used for individuals who are taking an unhealthy mixture of various medications. With a seemingly unending stream of new medications leading to more and more complex potential drug interactions, those who take several medications are at risk for worsening conditions and other health concerns.

What factors should be kept in mind?

  • The average number of prescriptions taken by individuals between the ages of 65 and 69 is 14. That average climbs to 18 prescriptions for those 80 to 84 years of age.
  • Between 1998 and 2005 more than 450,000 adverse drug events (ADE) were reported. These ADEs included birth defects, disabilities, hospitalization and death.
  • The inclusion of 2006 into the earlier range saw the number of ADE fatalities nearly triple.

While polypharmacy is not an inherently negative concept, it puts a substantial burden on all involved to carefully examine potential drug interactions. From doctors to the pharmacists to the patient, multiple medications can lead to serious complications, including:

  • Prescribing medications that enhance the effect of other medications.
  • Prescribing medications that diminish the effect of other medications.
  • Prescribing medications that cancel each other out.
  • Prescribing the wrong dosage of various medications.
  • Taking the wrong amount or wrong pills at the wrong time.
  • Giving the incorrect instructions on various medications.

Polypharmacy might not be the first thing people think of when confronted with the phrase “medical negligence,” however, inattention in this area can be deadly. Not every individual might suffer from devastating effects of numerous medications, but doctors and pharmacists alike must remain vigilant in ensuring the safety of elderly patients.