Risk Management Tools & Resources


Strategies for Reducing Polypharmacy in Senior Care

Marcy A. Metzgar

Strategies for Reducing Polypharmacy in Senior Care

Polypharmacy is a serious concern among adults, and especially among seniors. Although polypharmacy is preventable, it is a significant contributor to morbidity and mortality.1 Polypharmacy is generally defined as taking multiple medications or more medications than are medically necessary (including over-the-counter drugs and supplements). A 2016 study showed that 36 percent of community-dwelling older adults (ages 62-85 years) were taking five or more prescription medications in 2010 to 2011 — up from 31 percent in 2005 to 2006.2

Because of increased numbers of comorbid conditions, newer medications that effectively treat more medical conditions, and practice guidelines that often recommend multidrug regimens, seniors have a higher rate of polypharmacy.3 Seniors take more medications to control multiple chronic diseases and may have greater difficulty metabolizing them, both of which can produce unfavorable adverse effects.

Some of these adverse effects include poor medication adherence, drug–drug interactions, medication errors, and adverse drug reactions. These effects may subsequently result in falls, hip fractures, cognitive impairment including confusion and delirium, and urinary incontinence, which account for a significant percentage of potentially preventable emergency department visits and hospitalizations.4

Adverse effects can be further compounded in a prescribing cascade, in which an adverse reaction to one drug goes unrecognized or misinterpreted, causing a healthcare provider to inappropriately prescribe another drug to treat signs and symptoms. This can lead to potentially dangerous situations and overprescribing.5

To avoid overprescribing, providers should look at a patient’s overall medical profile when prescribing medications instead of prescribing for certain therapies. Providers also should minimize the number of medications prescribed for seniors, keep the dosing schedule as simple as possible, and limit the number of medication changes.

The following screening tools and guidelines are available to help providers evaluate and discontinue medications that are potentially inappropriate for seniors:

  • START (Screening Tool to Alert Doctors to Right Treatment)6
  • STOPP (Screening Tool of Older Persons’ Potential Inappropriate Prescriptions)7
  • Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults8

Deprescribing is when providers identify and intentionally stop a medication or reduce its dose to improve a patient’s health or reduce the risk of adverse side effects. Providers can follow these steps when deprescribing:

  • Avoid medications that are inappropriate for seniors because of adverse effects, lack of efficacy, and/or potential for interactions.
  • Discontinue medications when the harms outweigh the benefits in the context of the patient’s care goals, life expectancy, and/or preferences.9

When seeing and evaluating senior patients, providers can use these methods to minimize polypharmacy:

  • Scrutinize medication lists during every patient visit and review the dosages. Have patients bring all of their medications to the office and review them together.
  • Assess for drug–drug interactions.
  • Monitor for adverse drug withdrawal events.
  • Identify any drug-related problems.
  • Teach patients about potential side effects, including when to call the office or seek emergency help.
  • Inform patients of any dietary restrictions necessitated by a specific medication.
  • Explore nonpharmacological interventions, such as dietary changes and behavioral modification strategies.
  • Use tapering approaches.
  • Reduce pill burden to improve patients’ ability to adhere to treatment regimens.10

The prevalence of polypharmacy in senior care is a patient safety issue. It can produce significant adverse effects and reduced functional capacity. Reducing polypharmacy and avoiding inappropriate medications is a common goal in senior care, regardless of the setting. Healthcare providers can use resources and interventions to target patients and prescribing practices associated with higher adverse drug events.

1 Wang, K. A., Camargo, M., & Veluswamy, R. R. (2013). Evidence-based strategies to reduce polypharmacy: A review. OA Elderly Medicine, 1(1):6.

2 Qato, D. M., Wilder, J., Schumm, L. P. (2016). Changes in prescription and over-the-counter medication and dietary supplement use among older adults in the United States, 2005 vs. 2011. JAMA Internal Medicine, 176:473-482.

3 Brookes, L., & Scott, I. A. (2013). Deprescribing in clinical practice: Reducing polypharmacy in older patients. Medscape. Retrieved from www.medscape.com/viewarticle/814861_1

4 Shah, B., & Hajjar, E. (2012). Polypharmacy, adverse drug reactions and geriatric syndromes. Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, 28:173-186.

5 Woodruff, K. (2010). Preventing polypharmacy in older adults. American Nurse Today, 5(10).

6 Barry, P. J., Gallagher, P., Ryan, C., & O’Mahony, D. (2007). START (screening tool to alert doctors to the right treatment)—an evidence-based screening tool to detect prescribing omissions in elderly patients. Age and Ageing, 36(6):632-638.

7Gallagher, P., & O’Mahony, D. (2008). STOPP (screening tool of older persons’ potentially inappropriate prescriptions): application to acutely ill elderly patients and comparison with Beers’ criteria. Age and Ageing, 37(6):673-679.

8 American Geriatrics Society. (2015). American Geriatrics Society 2015 updated Beers criteria for potentially inappropriate medication use in older adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, doi:10.111/jgs.13702.

9 McGrath, K., Hajjar, E. R., Kumar, C., Hwang, C., & Salzman, B. (2017). Deprescribing: A simple method for reducing polypharmacy. The Journal of Family Practice, 66(7):436-445.

10 Farrell, B., Shamji, S., Monahan, A., & Merkley, V. F. (2013). Reducing polypharmacy in the elderly. Canadian Pharmacists Journal, 146(5):243-244.

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